China farm pollution worsens, despite moves to curb excessive fertilisers, pesticides

BEIJING (Reuters) - Farm pollution in China is worsening, despite moves to reduce excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, said the agricultural ministry, urging farmers to switch to organic alternatives to tackle severe soil and water pollution.

A farmer works in a field on the outskirts of Baokang, central China's Hubei province, May 13, 2007. REUTERS/Stringer

But experts say achieving the ministry’s goal will be difficult without sacrificing food output, a top priority in the world’s most populous country.

China consumes around a third of global fertilizers, with rapid growth in use in recent years driven largely by higher fruit and vegetable production. China is the world’s biggest grower of apples, strawberries, watermelons and a range of vegetables.

Excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has led to polluted water sources, contamination of soil with heavy metals and high pesticide residues on food, threatening both public health and agricultural productivity.

“Agricultural non-point source pollution is worsening, exacerbating the risk of soil and water pollution,” said the agriculture ministry in a statement.

Growers apply 550 kilograms (1,212 pounds) of fertilizer to a hectare (about 2.5 acres) of fruit trees and 365 kilograms (805 pounds) of fertilizer to a hectare of vegetables, vice agriculture minister Zhang Taolin told reporters on Tuesday.

World Bank data showed China used 647.6 kilograms (1,427 pounds) of fertilizer per hectare of arable land in 2012, compared with 131 kilograms (289 pounds) in the United States and 124.3 kilograms (274 pounds) in Spain.

Pesticide consumption should be cut to 300,000 tonnes, down from the current 320,000 tonnes, said Zhang.

China’s use of chemical fertilizer grew by an average 5.2 percent a year over the past three decades, reaching 59 million tonnes in 2013, Xinhua said last month.

“There is large space to reduce this growth,” Zhang said, reiterating a target announced late last year to halt growth in fertilizer use nationwide by 2020.

“I believe it is absolutely possible to guarantee our food security strategy,” added Zhang, while proposing farmers use more organic fertilizers.

Qiu Huanguang, professor at Renmin University, expressed doubt over the plan, however.

“China’s soil fertility is declining so it needs fertilizers to maintain it,” he said, adding that switching to organic fertilizers such as animal manure was much more labor-intensive for farmers already facing rising labor costs.

“The agriculture ministry’s main goal is to stabilize production, or increase it. Environmental protection is not their number one function,” added Qiu.

Beijing also wants to promote the use of waste management systems at livestock farms and try to reduce pollution from plastic film, promoting biodegradable products as an alternative, said Zhang.

Farmers use 2.5 million tonnes of sheeting a year to prevent moisture evaporation and for weed control, but the plastic is often left in the soil damaging soil, water and animal health.

China is also targeting more efficient irrigation and recycling of straw left after harvesting for use as mulch, animal feed and biomass.

Reporting By Dominique Patton; Editing by Michael Perry