Navigating the Muddy Waters of China’s Cadmium Rice Paddies
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2017-06-15 15:09:33

HUNAN, Central China — The 16 acres of rice paddies that Liu Jian works have sustained him since he was born, as they have his parents, his siblings, and his own 21-year-old son. But since last year, the 48-year-old’s tract of land has sat unseeded and will remain so for another two and a half years.

Liu’s land lies fallow under local government orders. Along with vast amounts of other fertile soil across Hunan province, his paddies are riddled with the toxic metal cadmium, the result of industrial runoff from factories and animal feed containing the metal used on livestock farms.

Liu lives in Wangcheng District, some 40 kilometers away from downtown Changsha, Hunan’s provincial capital. The province is known for its abundant water resources, arable land, and mild climate — all the makings of a rice-growing powerhouse. Consequently, Hunan has for decades topped the list of China’s rice-producing provinces, and today, Hunanese rice paddies belonging to farmers like Liu account for over 10 percent of the country’s national rice production.

But recent years have seen clouds form over China’s rice heartland. The discovery four years ago that much of Hunan’s farmland was contaminated with cadmium and other toxins has left both the government and private organizations scrambling to find viable methods of soil remediation — also known as “soil washing.”

For Liu, things started to change in 2013, when a television news report exposed the discovery of cadmium-contaminated rice in southern China’s Guangdong province. The rice came from Hunan, and it soon made international headlines. Local government bodies in Hunan launched investigations across the province, and samples of Liu’s rice and soil were found to contain levels of cadmium exceeding the national safety standard.

Liu Jian stands on unseeded land in Qiaokou Town, Hunan province, May 3, 2017. Li You/Sixth Tone

Liu Jian stands on unseeded land in Qiaokou Town, Hunan province, May 3, 2017. Li You/Sixth Tone

Amid rising public awareness of food safety issues, the scandal soon became an issue of national urgency — understandably so, given the danger that cadmium poses to humans. According to the World Health Organization, consumption of the lethal metallic element — used in the production of nickel-cadmium batteries and present in some types of animal feed — can lead to renal failure and complications like kidney stones. A government-led nationwide investigation in 2014 found that 7 percent of the land surveyed was contaminated with cadmium, and almost one-fifth of the farmland was found to be polluted to some degree. More recently, researchers at Hunan University of Technology confirmed that cadmium contamination in Qiaokou Town — where Liu lives — was caused by chemical waste from factories and agricultural waste from livestock farms.

In response to the crisis, the State Council — China’s cabinet — launched the progressive “Soil Pollution Prevention Action Plan,” which vowed to return 90 percent of the country’s polluted farmland to a state fit for safe use by 2020. To implement the plan, the State Council has put the onus on provincial governments around the country to develop and execute their own soil remediation operations, leading some to question how well-equipped such local authorities are to shoulder such an ambitious task.

Liu’s experience speaks to such concerns: The local authorities have used different technologies and enlisted the help of third parties, but still, his soil remains contaminated.

I don’t know what things will be like in three years’ time, but I think [soil remediation] is a good thing.

Even before the State Council launched its action plan, the Hunan government had begun a series of pilot programs particularly focused on the triangle of land formed by the cities of Changsha, Zhuzhou, and Xiangtan — the area in which Liu’s paddies are located. In 2015, workers employed by the local government came to Liu’s farmland to spray the soil with lime, one of the techniques prescribed by the Chinese-developed “VIP+n” soil remediation method, which also includes improving irrigation, varying the strain of crop used, and deep plowing the soil.

In Liu’s town of Qiaokou, the government provided farmers with an alternative type of rice seed thought to be less susceptible to cadmium absorption. It was a compromise for rice farmers like Liu, since the form of rice they typically use produces a much better yield than the conventional variety. A neighbor of Liu’s, Su Jiantian, said he insisted on planting both varieties to maintain production volume.

Yet the cost of remediation is shouldered not only by the farmers but also by the government, which has poured millions of yuan into its soil washing campaign. In April 2016, the Wangcheng District authorities signed an 80 million-yuan (around $11.8 million) contract with waste treatment and soil remediation specialist Yonker Environmental Protection Co. Ltd., commissioning the company to carry out an eight-month remediation of all the district’s contaminated farmland.

According to Meng Ling, the company’s deputy head of farmland soil remediation, the involvement of a third party like Yonker has helped increase the transparency of the government’s campaign. “Now the government can step out and just be a referee,” she said, likening the situation to a game of sports in which the authorities previously served as a player on the field. Around April, when Liu would normally be planting the first of the year’s two rice crops, he looked on as Yonker workers sprayed his paddies with lime, an attempt to balance the soil’s pH levels and neutralize the cadmium present.

Rice farmer Su Jiantian weeds a field in Qiaokou Town, Hunan province, May 4, 2017. Li You/Sixth Tone

Rice farmer Su Jiantian weeds a field in Qiaokou Town, Hunan province, May 4, 2017. Li You/Sixth Tone

But when the company’s contract ended in November last year, Liu’s land remained contaminated. “You can’t achieve good results within a year,” explained Meng, who — despite expressing willingness to continue working with the authorities — did not speculate as to why the government chose not to renew the contract.

Both the provincial and district governments declined Sixth Tone’s requests for comment on the matter, ambiguously citing the “sensitivity” surrounding the area’s soil pollution.

The authorities appear to be taking matters back into their own hands. At the end of last year, they ordered Liu and fellow farmers in the area to cease use of a combined 16,500 acres of contaminated farmland for three years in another experimental bid to let the harmful cadmium drain from the paddies. While the land lies fallow, the Qiaokou agricultural department will implement a series of further measures to improve soil quality, department official Qu Ping told Sixth Tone. These measures will include deep plowing and the application of “green manure” — dead plants used to nourish the soil.

Yet some scientists have reservations about the soil remediation techniques currently in use. Chen Nengchang is a researcher at the Guangdong Institute of Eco-environmental and Soil Sciences who has expressed doubts about the efficacy of lime application and deep plowing, methods that have both been used in Wangcheng District. According to Chen, deep plowing may even risk activating the harmful metallic content in contaminated rice paddy soil.

Liu Jian looks out from his garage in Qiaokou Town, Hunan province, May 3, 2017. Li You/Sixth Tone

Liu Jian looks out from his garage in Qiaokou Town, Hunan province, May 3, 2017. Li You/Sixth Tone

Rather than relying on a blanket treatment comprising a cocktail of methods, Chen believes that soil remediation should be tailored to a locality’s specific conditions and carried out in conjunction with tighter pollution controls. Likening the cadmium-tainted soil to a patient, Chen posited: “Could you expect to cure a sick person’s digestive problems with pills, medicine, or a massage if you had no idea what the problem was?”

It remains to be seen whether the current initiative will finally rid Liu’s paddies of cadmium, but one thing is certain: His livelihood will take a significant hit while his land lies fallow. In a good year, Liu was earning up to 60,000 yuan from his crops, a far cry from what the government is offering him in compensation. For each year his land remains unseeded, the authorities will give him 2,600 yuan.

Liu is unhappy about the impact the remediation initiative will have on his family’s finances, but he is by no means resentful. Instead, he’s taking a pragmatic approach to dealing with the loss of earnings by acting as a merchant for fellow farmers. Bags of their rice sit in stacks in his garage, ready to be taken to the local market where he will sell them for a cut of the profit. “I don’t know what things will be like in three years’ time,” Liu said, “but I think [soil remediation] is a good thing.”

Editor: Owen Churchill.

(Header image: A farmer walks through a paddy field in Qiaokou Town, Hunan province, May 4, 2017. Li You/Sixth Tone)