CHENJIAWAN, China — The farm-to-table process in China starts in villages like this one in the agricultural heartland. Food from the fields of Ge Songqing and her neighbors ends up in their kitchens or in the local market and, from there, to other provinces. The foods are staples of Chinese cooking: rice, cabbage, carrots, turnips and sweet potatoes.
But the fields are ringed by factories and irrigated with water tainted by industrial waste. Levels of toxic heavy metals in the wastewater here are among the highest in China, and residents fear the soil is similarly contaminated. Though they have no scientific proof, they suspect that a spate of cancer deaths is linked to the pollution, and they worry about levels of lead in the children’s blood.
“Of course I’m afraid,” said Ge, in her 60s, pointing to the smokestacks looming over her fields and the stagnant, algae-filled irrigation canals surrounding a home she shares with a granddaughter and her husband, a former soldier. “But we don’t do physical checkups. If we find out we have cancer, it’s only a burden on the children.”
With awareness rising of China’s severe environmental degradation, there has been a surge of anxiety in the last year among ordinary Chinese and some officials over soil pollution in the country’s agricultural centers and the potential effects on the food chain. In recent years, the government has conducted widespread testing of soil across China, but it has declined to release the results, exacerbating the fear and making it more difficult for ordinary Chinese to judge what they eat and pinpoint the offending factories.
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On Monday, a vice minister of land and resources, Wang Shiyuan, gave an alarming glimpse of official findings when he said at a news conference in Beijing that 8 million acres of China’s farmland, equal to the size of Maryland, had become so polluted that planting crops on it “should not be allowed.”
A signal moment came in May, when officials in Guangdong province, in the far south, said they had discovered excessive levels of cadmium in 155 batches of rice collected from markets, restaurants and storehouses. Of those, 89 were from Hunan province, where Ge farms.
The report set off a nationwide scare. In June, China Daily, an official, English-language newspaper, published an editorial saying that “soil contaminated with heavy metals is eroding the foundation of the country’s food safety and becoming a looming public health hazard.”
One-sixth of China’s arable land — nearly 50 million acres — suffers from soil pollution, according to a book published this year by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. The book, “Soil Pollution and Physical Health,” said that more than 13 million tons of crops harvested each year were contaminated with heavy metals, and 22 million acres of farmland were affected by pesticides.
But the government has refused to divulge details of the pollution, leaving farmers and consumers in the dark about the levels of contaminants in the food chain. The soil survey, completed in 2010, has been locked away as a “state secret.”
“We think it’s always the right of the public to know how bad the situation is,” said Ma Tianjie, an advocate at Greenpeace East Asia who is researching toxic soil. “The Chinese public can accept the fact that our environment is polluted. The important thing is to give them the means to challenge polluters and improve the environment, and not just keep them in the dark.”
There has been some acknowledgment of the problem by top officials. In January 2013, the State Council, China’s Cabinet, announced that it would set up systems to comprehensively monitor soil pollution by 2015 and promote pilot projects for treatment.
Scholars say soil pollution is especially acute in Hunan province, China’s rice bowl. In 2012, Hunan produced 17 million tons of rice, 16 percent of the national total, according to one market research company.
The province is also one of China’s top producers of nonferrous metals. As a result, it is the leading polluter of cadmium, chromium, lead and nonmetal arsenic, according to data collected in 2011 by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a research group based in Beijing.
That year, the province was responsible for 41 percent of the nation’s cadmium pollution when measured by its presence in industrial wastewater; the number has not dropped below 30 percent since 2004, when the data were first collected by the group. The wastewater is discharged in rivers, where it flows into irrigation channels.
“There’s this pressure from the central government on Hunan to maintain a high level of yield for rice production,” said Ma, the Greenpeace program director. “On the other hand, rice production never gives you the same kind of GDP growth that industrial development gives you.”
Hunan’s abundance of raw metals has led to a push by provincial Communist Party leaders to develop industry there, leaving officials caught in what Ma calls a clash of two imperatives: “They have to feed the country with their rice, but they want to grow their economy.”
Among the heavy metals seeping into Hunan’s crops, the worst may be cadmium, which at high levels has been linked to organ failure, weakening of bones and cancer, scientists say.
No public data, however, show the level of cadmium pollution in food.
Increasingly, Chinese news organizations are reporting on clusters of villages that have high rates of cancer, raising questions about the potential link between cancer and various forms of pollution. Some scientists are now conducting studies.
In July, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Pollution published some findings from a study that drew a direct connection between pollution of the Huai River, which crosses several provinces in central China, and high rates of cancer among people living by the river.