A farm in Wanzhou, from Ray Devlin
China’s first national census on pollution was not the bearer of the best news yesterday. It revealed that, toppling China’s notorious factories, farms have become the biggest single source of the main water pollutants, countrywide levels of which stood at over twice the original government estimates.
The document’s release was apparently held up thanks to opposition from the agriculture ministry. The department had previously insisted that farms contributed to only a tiny fraction of pollution in China, arguing this to such a degree that agricultural sources of pollution were excluded from government estimates altogether. Given the huge size of China’s agricultural sector, these new, high figures are quite realistic.
Last week, Greenpeace reported that China consumes 35% of the world’s nitrogen fertilizer. It also said the country’s farmers have used 40% more fertilizers than crops needed, resulting in around 10 million tonnes of fertilizer being discharged into water every year. Rather than refute such claims, Tuesday’s census revealed that 209 billion tonnes of waste water were discharged in China in 2007.
The government has justified China’s dependency on intensive farming methods with the evidence that the country uses only 7% of the world’s land to feed 22% of the global population. But the ministry of agriculture’s Wang Yangliang did not shy away from admitting the negative effects of such methods. Speaking to The Guardian, he said,
Fertilisers and pesticides have played an important role in enhancing productivity but in certain areas improper use has had a grave impact on the environment. (…) The fast development of livestock breeding and aquaculture has produced a lot of food but they are also major sources of pollution in our lives.
The numbers took two years, 570,000 people, and over 1 billion pieces of data from around 6 million pollution sources to be compiled. Now that they match long-standing concerns over China’s environmental squalor and its under-reporting, policy change has been vaguely promised. Zhang Lijun, vice minister of environmental protection, said the government may take a more targeted approach to preventing and controlling agricultural pollution, given the potential future peak of pollution.
Wen Tiejun, dean of the school of agriculture and rural development at Renmin University, says China’s government must now foster low-pollution agriculture, rather than rely on chemical farming. Zhang promised such methods will be increasingly monitored by the time the next census rears its head in 2020.