Industrialization has turned much of the Chinese countryside into an environmental disaster zone, threatening not only the food supply but the legitimacy of the regime itself.
For years, public attention has focused on the choking air and contaminated water that plague China’s ever-expanding cities. But a series of recent cases have highlighted the spread of pollution outside of urban areas, now encompassing vast swaths of countryside, including the agricultural heartland.
Estimates from state-affiliated researchers say that anywhere between 8% and 20% of China’s arable land, some 25 to 60 million acres, may now be contaminated with heavy metals. A loss of even 5% could be disastrous, taking China below the “red line” of 296 million acres of arable land that are currently needed, according to the government, to feed the country’s 1.35 billion people.
Rural China’s toxic turn is largely a consequence of two trends, say environmental researchers: the expansion of polluting industries into remote areas a safe distance from population centers, and heavy use of chemical fertilizers to meet the country’s mounting food needs. Both changes have been driven by the rapid pace of urbanization in a country that in 2012, for the first time in its long history, had more people living in cities than outside of them.