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 fertilisers and pesticides, said the agricultural ministry, urging farmers to switch to organic alternatives to tackle severe soil and water pollution.

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 fertilisers, 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 fertilises 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 550kg of fertiliser to a hectare of fruit trees and 365kg of fertiliser to a hectare of vegetables, vice agriculture minister Zhang Taolin told reporters on Tuesday.

World Bank data showed China used 647.6kg of fertiliser per hectare of arable land in 2012, compared with 131kg in the United States and 124.3kg 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 per cent 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 fertiliser use nationwide by 2020. "I believe it is absolutely possible to guarantee our food security strategy," added Zhang, while proposing farmers use more organic fertilisers.

Qiu Huanguang, professor at Renmin University, expressed doubt over the plan however. "China's soil fertility is declining so it needs fertilisers to maintain it," he said, adding that switching to organic fertilisers such as animal manure was much more labour-intensive for farmers already facing rising labour costs. "The agriculture ministry's main goal is to stabilise 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 targetting more efficient irrigation and recycling of straw left after harvesting for use as mulch, animal feed and biomass.