China's soil pollution problem is already so extreme that 1/5 of farmland is unfit for use. A new action plan to tackle the problem has been released, but without immediate, binding legislation, its impact will be severely limited.

Cadmium polluted oranges in Hunan Province, 2010

Soil pollution in China has been rife for years. Scandals of cadmium-tainted rice being sold in Chinese markets, and 'toxic schools' that caused hundreds of children to fall severely ill have generated headlines worldwide, but until now, the extent of the problem flew largely under the radar.    

Now, finally, after years of campaigning and advice calling for the introduction of a comprehensive plan to tackle the country’s soil pollution crisis, China’s State Council has released the Soil Pollution Prevention Action Plan.

The plan is ambitious. It proposes that within just four years, 90% of China’s currently polluted farmland will be made usable again.

Let’s put that in context: a 2014 report estimated that a total one fifth of China’s farmland soil is severely polluted. This plan aims to drastically curb soil pollution, a big step towards improving food safety and limiting damage to people's health.

Heavy metal soil pollution in China’s Hunan Province

Here’s a breakdown of a few of the great things the plan proposes to do:

  • 666,000 hectares of farmland soil remediation work by 2020.

  • Revised soil quality standards by 2017 (the current ones haven’t been updated since 1995!).

  • Return up to 13,340km2 of polluted land to forest and grassland by 2020.

But are these ambitious goals realistic? Are they achievable?

Firstly, implementing everything that the plan lists will be extremely costly. The plan itself estimates it could cost up to 300 billion RMB, much of which will come from taxpayers money.

Secondly, the soil action plan emphasises the responsibility of local governments to implement the plan. Given the scale of the problem, and the ambition of the plan, capacity and expertise will be a major challenge for these governments.

And thirdly, to clean up the enormous quantities of pollution from agriculture China will need to implement transformational change in how it feeds its population. The current system of intensive farming with heavy pesticide and fertiliser usage is simply unsustainable. The Ministry of Agriculture’s step to cap the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers by 2020 is a positive step in this direction. At the same time, however, continuing industrialisation of agriculture production is undermining these efforts to stop soil deterioration and pollution.

Organic rice farming in southern China

The challenges are huge. But they can be overcome, if the first steps can be taken in time.

Most importantly, the plan is desperately in need of a binding soil protection law in order to really give it the teeth it needs. As it stands, the law will be introduced in 2020. But that is far too late. It must come as soon as possible.

In addition, the two government departments responsible for monitoring soil quality, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Agriculture will need to improve their cooperation in order to effectively wean China off its pesticide-heavy and pollutant-heavy mode of agriculture.

China’s Soil Pollution Prevention Action Plan is a major step in the right direction. The scale of the problem, however, is enormous and well beyond the current scope of the plan. In the short term, what is desperately needed is legal measures to back up the targets of the plan. In the longer term, China needs to get serious about its transition away from a pesticide- and pollution-heavy model of agriculture.

Ada Kong is toxics campaign manager for Greenpeace East Asia

Wang Jing is food and agriculture senior campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia