The Most Neglected Threat to Public Health in China Is Toxic Soil

Published: June 8, 2017 

Tang Donghua, a wiry 47-year-old farmer wearing a Greenpeace T-shirt, smokes a cigarette and gesticulates towards his paddy fields in the hills of southern Hunan province. The leaves of his rice plants poke about a foot above water. Mr Tang says he expects to harvest about one tonne of rice from his plot of a third of a hectare (0.8 acres) near the small village of Shiqiao. There is just one problem: the crop will be poisoned.

Egrets and damselflies chomp lazily on fish and insects in the humid valley below the paddy fields. But just beyond this rural scene lurks something discordant. Mr Tang points to a chimney around 2km away that belches forth white smoke. It belongs to the smelting plant which he blames for bringing pollution into the valley. Cadmium is released during the smelting of ores of iron, lead and copper. It is a heavy metal. If ingested, the liver and kidneys cannot get rid of it from the body, so it accumulates, causing joint and bone disease and, sometimes, cancer.

Hunan province is the country’s largest producer of rice—and of cadmium. The local environmental-protection agency took samples of Mr Tang’s rice this year and found it contained 50% more cadmium than allowed under Chinese law (whose limits are close to international norms). Yet there are no limits on planting rice in polluted areas in the region, so Mr Tang and his neighbours sell their tainted rice to the local milling company which distributes it throughout southern China. Mr Tang has sued the smelter for polluting his land—a brave act in China, where courts regularly rule in favour of well-connected businesses. His is an extreme case of soil contamination, one of the largest and most neglected problems in the country.

Soil contamination occurs in most countries with a lot of farmland, heavy industry and mining. In Ukraine, for example, which has all three, about 8% of the land is contaminated. A chemical dump in upstate New York called Love Canal resulted in the poisoning of many residents and the creation of the “superfund”, a federal programme to clean up contaminated soil. But the biggest problems occur in China, the world’s largest producer of food and of heavy industrial commodities such as steel and cement.

China’s smog is notorious. Its concentrations of pollutants—ten or more times the World Health Organisation’s maximum safe level—have put clean air high on the political agenda and led the government to curtail the production and use of coal. Water pollution does not spark as much popular outrage but commands the attention of elites. Wen Jiabao, a former prime minister, once said that water problems threaten “the very survival of the Chinese nation”. China has a vast scheme to divert water from its damp southern provinces to the arid north.

Dishing the dirt

Soil pollution, in contrast, is buried: a poisoned field can look as green and fertile as a healthy one. It is also intractable. With enough effort, it is possible to reduce air or water pollution, though it may take years or decades. By contrast, toxins remain in the soil for centuries, and are hugely expensive to eradicate. It took 21 years and the removal of 1,200 cubic metres of soil to clean up the Love Canal, a site covering just 6.5 hectares.

China’s soil contamination is so great that it cannot adopt such a course (see map). The country is unusual in that it not only has many brownfield sites (contaminated areas near cities that were once used for industry) but large amounts of polluted farmland, too. In 2014 the government published a national soil survey which showed that 16.1% of all soil and 19.4% of farmland was contaminated by organic and inorganic chemical pollutants and by metals such as lead, cadmium and arsenic. That amounts to roughly 250,000 square kilometres of contaminated soil, equivalent to the arable farmland of Mexico. Cadmium and arsenic were found in 40% of the affected land. Officials say that 35,000 square kilometres of farmland is so polluted that no agriculture should be allowed on it at all.

Stick in the mud

This survey is controversial. Carried out in 2005-13, it was at first classified as a state secret, leading environmentalists to fear that the contamination might be even worse than the government let on. Not everyone, however, is as pessimistic. Chen Tongbin, head of the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research in Beijing, thinks the figure of 19.4% is too high. Based on local studies, he says 10% is nearer the mark. Even that would be a worrying figure, given that China is trying to feed a fifth of the world’s population on a tenth of the world’s arable land. The conclusion seems to be that China’s soil pollution is widespread and that information about it is disturbingly unreliable.

There are three reasons why the contamination is so extensive. First, China’s chemical and fertiliser industries were poorly regulated for decades and the soil still stores the waste that was dumped on it for so many years. In 2015, for example, 10,000 tonnes of toxic waste was discovered under a pig farm in Jiangsu province in the east of China after a businessman proposed plans to build a warehouse on the plot and tested the soil. In 2004 construction workers on the Beijing metro suddenly fell ill when they started tunnelling under a site previously occupied by a pesticide factory.


Prince Charles Urges Diversity in the Crop World

Author: Umberto Bacchi  | Date Published: June 7, 2017 

Britain’s Prince Charles called on Wednesday for greater diversity in crop planting to feed a growing population in the face of global warming.

Access to a large pool of genetic information held by different plant varieties is key for scientists, who are racing to find crops capable of tolerating increasingly high temperatures, water shortages and dry conditions.

Three quarters of the world’s plant genetic diversity has been lost since the 1900s, as farmers shift from local varieties to genetically uniform, high-yielding crop breeds, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Speaking in a video message in support of an international lobby group, Food Forever, Charles said the trend to grow fewer varieties was “profoundly alarming”.


Fighting Climate Change on the Farm

Author: Kevin Ma | Published on: April 26, 2017

U of A scientists will study new ways to stop climate change this summer at a farm just north of St. Albert with the help of a federal grant.

Federal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay announced $3.7 million in grants for researchers at the University of Alberta last Friday. The grants are part of the federal Agricultural Greenhouse Gases Program and are meant to create practices and technologies farmers can use to reduce carbon emissions.

“Farmers have a key role to play in feeding the world and saving the planet,” MacAulay said, and have already taken significant steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with wheat and beef production.

Agriculture accounts for about 10 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, reports Environment Canada – equivalent to the annual emissions of about 7.7 million homes or 21.2 coal power plants for a year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates.


Organic Cotton Market Grows as Consumers Demand Sustainability

Published on: February 14, 2017

With growing concerns over sustainability and pollution globally, more organizations are beginning to turn to organic cotton when manufacturing textiles. Conventional cotton uses a very high amount of dangerous pesticides, and also requires a great deal of water. While organic cotton is more costly, it has a much smaller environmental impact. Additionally, as more people are beginning to factor in sustainability when buying clothing and other products, using organic cotton can give companies an edge over their competitors.

Currently only a small percentage of the global cotton market is organic, as it takes time to convert a traditional farm to an organic one, and production is more expensive. But there are many benefits to producing organic cotton, and not just to the health of the environment. It also impacts the wellbeing of the farmers and other nearby people.


Unlikely Allies Seek to Make Vermont’s Milk the Cream of the Industry

Author: Alicia Freese | Published: February 22, 2017 

An improbable coalition is calling for dramatic changes to the state’s dairy industry. Former agriculture secretary Roger Allbee has joined forces with three longtime environmental activists to argue that depressed milk prices, the need to reduce water pollution, and uncertainty about trade and migrant labor at the federal level present a unique opportunity to reinvigorate Vermont dairy farming.

“A perfect storm is brewing,” Allbee told the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee earlier this month. “Vermont has the rare opportunity of helping rescue its largest agricultural industry and to plot a future agriculture [system] for the state that is uniquely Vermont.”

The goal: to develop a set of environmental and ethical standards for dairy farms and build a made-in-Vermont brand that would bring farmers a premium price for their milk. Farms would have to meet those requirements — which could go above and beyond using organic practices — to qualify for using the state seal.

Requirements could include providing a livable wage and decent housing to farmworkers, allowing cows to graze on grassland, using non-GMO corn, forgoing pesticides and synthetic fertilizer, and cultivating carbon-rich soil. State financial incentives would encourage, rather than force, farms to make the transition.

“Our model is broken,” said Allbee, though he added: “I recognize that all dairy farmers cannot go organic.”

In addition to making its pitch to the legislature, the loose alliance of activists is meeting with government officials, writing op-eds and pressuring Vermont’s largest milk customers, which rely on conventional milk.

The Green Mountain State’s conventional dairy farmers have struggled for decades. Unlike farmstead cheese, milk is a commodity. Consumers don’t differentiate Vermont milk from that produced in Wisconsin or Idaho. So farmers here are subject to the price volatility of an international market and to increasing competition from larger farms able to produce cheaper milk. Vermont currently has 838 dairy farms, down 158 from five years ago, according to the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets. The number of cows declined by 4,000, to 130,000, during the same time period.

Persistently low prices have further squeezed Vermont’s farmers in recent years. Milk has been selling for less than what it costs to produce, and a federal price insurance program has failed to provide much relief. At the same time, farmers are under mounting pressure to reduce water pollution as the state launches a concerted effort to clean up Lake Champlain and other waterways. Runoff of manure and fertilizer from farms contributes roughly 40 percent of the phosphorous contaminating the waters.


California’s Drought Continues to Harm Native Tribes and Fishermen

Author: Kristine Wong | Published: February 3, 2017 

Native American communities have often embraced fish as an integral part of their diet and culture. For the Hoopa Valley people, a Native American tribe in Northern California not far from the Oregon border, that fish is salmon.

“We’re river people,” said tribal member Brittani Orona. “We depend a lot on water and the life that’s in the water for both our physical and cultural sustenance.” Salmon has historically been a staple of the tribe’s diet, as well as what members eat at Hoopa Valley “world renewal” dances, when they dance by the water or in a boat.

California’s historic drought—which has only just ended in Northern California after six years—has had profound impacts on food and culture for native tribes. Record-low numbers of salmon last year put many tribal members in a tough spot.

“We interviewed tribal fishermen, and they said for the first time they couldn’t catch any salmon” for their ceremonies, said Laura Feinstein, an ecologist and senior research associate at water think tank the Pacific Institute. “They had to use chicken instead.”

A new report from the Pacific Institute shows how communities particularly dependent on fish are especially at risk from the California drought. The report concludes that these groups have been affected by state policy that does not go far enough to protect non-endangered, commercially fished species.

“We wanted to talk about the connections between California water and fish beyond ‘fish vs. farms,’ because that framework ignores the people who rely on this fish for economic and cultural reasons,” said Feinstein.

As it stands, Feinstein said the state focuses its environment-related water policy on complying with the Endangered Species Act—which protects federally listed endangered runs of Chinook Salmon such as the California Coastal Chinook—through measures like maintaining adequate water flows.

Key to expanding the discussion, Feinstein said, is understanding how the California drought has affected the non-endangered species of salmon that tribes and commercial fishermen rely on. “There’s quite a bit of research on how the drought has affected the endangered salmon, but not about how it affects the non-endangered [salmon] runs,” she said.

In addition to its conclusion about commercial and tribal fishermen, the report also found that disadvantaged populations—low-income households, people of color, and communities already burdened with environmental pollution—have suffered the most from the water shortage.

In recent years, these Californians experienced a greater number of household water outages (due to lack of supply), despite the fact that the utility companies charged them standard drought fees that do not account for household income level.

Drought Challenges for Salmon and Salmon Fishermen

The salmon in California have a number of factors working against them. Diminished stream flows, caused in part by the Klamath River Dam, as well as water diverted by other dams and structures, block the fish as they attempt to swim upstream from the ocean to their historical spawning habitats, the report concluded. Additionally, higher water temperatures has caused disease outbreaks among salmon in the Klamath River in the last year, according to tribal fishermen.


By 2030 Megacities May Devour More Than 86 Million Acres of Prime Farmland

A recent study by a group of scientists from around the world finds that by 2030, sprawling mega-cities will squeeze out productive farmland, especially in Asia and Africa, putting a burden on what will be an already overtaxed food system.

The study, “Future urban land expansion and implications for global croplands,” published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds that by 2030, as much as 86.5 million acres of productive farmland worldwide—between two and four percent of total farmland—will be lost as the world’s so called mega-cities, generally defined as being more than ten million residents, and the adjoining areas, called “mega urban regions,” take over prime agricultural croplands to make room for a growing population and their activities.

The group of scientists from Yale, Texas A&M, the University of Maryland, and research institutions in Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, and Austria, found that the world’s most productive cropland—that which is irrigated—is the most at risk. That’s because 60 percent of it is on the the outskirts of large cities. As these cities expand, cropland is lost. According to the study, this irrigated land tends to be twice as productive as the other 40 percent.

“The loss of these critical farmlands puts even more pressure on food producing systems and shows that we must produce strategies to cope with this global problem,” Burak Güneralp, one of the study’s authors and a research assistant professor in the Department of Geography at Texas A & M told Texas A & M Today.

Urban agriculture, the expansion of farming into areas farther from urban centers, and farming intensification practices (such as the heavy use of fertilizers), will offset some of the loss of farmland, say the scientists. Even so, some arid regions, like North Africa and the Middle East, are already pushing the outer limits of land use and don’t have the luxury of expanding farming into new areas away from large cities.


A Mind-boggling Carbon Deposit Was Just Discovered in the Congo

Author: Maddie Stone | Published: January 16, 2017 

A newly-discovered peatland in the Congo Basin of central Africa contains an estimated 30.6 billion tons of carbon in its waterlogged soils—equivalent to three times the total annual carbon emissions of every human being alive today.

Covering an area the size of England, the Cuvette Central is the largest tropical peatland area on Earth, dramatically increasing the amount of carbon stored in our planet’s hot and humid midsection, according to an analysis published last week in Nature. Now that this vast carbon sink has been identified, experts say we need to take every action possible to ensure it remains in the ground.

“Peatlands are only a resource in the fight against climate change when left intact, and so maintaining large stores of carbon in undisturbed peatlands should be a priority,” lead study author Simon Lewis said in a statement. “Our new results show that carbon has been building up in the Congo Basin’s peat for nearly 11,000 years.”

Peatlands only cover about three percent of Earth’s land surface, but they contain up to a third of all of the carbon sequestered in soils. Peat forms in waterlogged regions where plants add lots of organic material to the soil, but where decomposition is inhibited by a lack of oxygen (and, in the case of boreal and tundra peatlands, low temperatures). Over time, the highly organic, dark brown-to-black muck soils that characterize peatlands can compress into coal. That is, unless the soil warms up and dries out, at which point all of that carbon is liable to escape back to the atmosphere.


Climate Change and Farming: Let’s Be Part of the Solution!

Author: Anna Bowen | Published on: January 9, 2017

What with rising rainfall in the west, and hotter, drier summers in the east, British farmers place plenty of challenges from global warming, writes Anna Bowen. But there are also positive opportunities for agricultural innovators to adapt their farming systems to changing conditions, make their operations more resilient and sustainable, and make themselves part of the solution.

I think it’s time to change my farming system”, said my client. “A switch from dairy to rice paddies.”

Looking at his sodden fields, it wasn’t hard to imagine.

When you work with farmers, conversations about the weather are inevitable. Their livelihoods are intrinsically linked to the climate, and very often they and their animals are at the mercy of the elements.

As a consultant I work with long-term financial projections and business plans. In light of rising global temperatures it would be foolish to overlook the impact that climate change may have on my dairy farming clients in the dampness of West Wales.

The last decade has seen record-setting wet years for Britain, and the risk of flooding and the problems associated with sodden ground look likely to be an increasing challenge for farmers. The Environment Agency state that precipitation in the West of the country is expected to increase by up to 33%, a significant rise for an area that already experiences some of the highest rainfall in the UK.


Research Center Proposes Carbon Tax on Unsustainable Food

Author: Nithin Coca | Published on: December 2, 2016

Agriculture has a huge negative impact on the environment, including being responsible for 11 percent of global carbon emissions. Could a carbon tax on food, as proposed by the International Food Policy Research Institute, help make our food system not only more green, but healthier too?

In a report published in the journal Nature, researchers from the institute argue there is immense climate mitigation potential if we just change our diets.

Right now we, as a planet, have an unsustainable food system. We take up huge swaths of the earth for intensive, chemical-laden food production. The least sustainable food, the researchers insist, is red meat. But the problem is that these very foods are, often, the cheapest choices.

This is something all of us experience every day. The true impacts of food are not included in the price we pay at the store, not at all. Go to your local grocery, and you’ll see that organic produce is far more expensive than a factory-farmed piece of red meat, despite the fact that the former has a far smaller carbon footprint. It is why a healthy sit-down, farm-to-kitchen meal is far more costly than a trip to McDonald’s.