Still Waters Run Dirty

02/17/2010 4:00 AM |

I know I don’t normally get embroiled in international trade issues, but last week I found myself riveted by a little article in the Times, detailing China’s latest report on its water pollution. Turns out there is far more pollution than had previously been documented, or even acknowledged. The most recent report has deigned to include agricultural waste—fertilizers, pesticides, stuff that seeps from landfills—as part of the total: these pollutants had long been excluded from any tally of pollution, presumably in an attempt to keep levels down.

Talk about a selective approach. Part of this is the result of expanded data collection, as well as the expanded definition of pollutants, but it’s hard not to think of China’s long history of industrial and environmental cover-ups and deceptions, attempts to keep their reputation unsullied, their products trustworthy, and consumers buying.

Put the words “China” and “agriculture” in the same sentence, and I immediately think of the disconcerting, nearly inescapable presence on U.S. shelves (and in U.S. freezers, fridges etc.) of “Grown in China” produce, and “Made in China” prepared foods. Sure, we all want some imported foods, but China has taken it to the next level, and then a couple of levels above that. One example is a deliberate, stated attempt to take over the apple market: we’ve let them (by buying their apples, at artificially low prices) despite the fact that some of the best apples in the world are grown just an hour from Manhattan (and throughout the northern states and Canada). Check out the frozen-vegetable section at Trader Joe’s if you don’t know what I’m talking about.

So we have the new breadbasket of the world finally coming clean(er) on just how dirty things are over there. And it turns out that much of that “dirt” has been generated growing, or producing, stuff for us. (The other half of the picture is industrial effluent, dumped by manufacturers into rivers and lakes. Same old, same old.) Though this country is hardly leading the way in pollution control, one of the reasons that stuff made in China is cheaper is that there are fewer controls, regulations and limits on the kinds of messes you can make manufacturing and growing. The cost of cleaning up isn’t factored into the price of the product.

The Times article, after discussing the dramatic upward revision of pollution numbers, went on to detail the total pollution capacity of China’s rivers. In brief, the amount of pollution being produced is three times the amount that the country’s bodies of water can absorb. Our consumption of Chinese products is leading, none too slowly, to the poisoning of a country on the other side of the world.

What does it mean that we’re exporting our pollution, and our environmental damage to another country, one apparently willing to take it? Is this really what we want to be doing to the planet, working diligently in the U.S. (some of us, at least) to tighten environmental regulations, and lessen our impact, both individually and as a society, as we continue to buy and buy, from China and many other places with cheaper labor and more lax regulation.

The sticking point is the buying: depending on who you listen to, as much as half of all the food in this country is wasted along the chain of supply, much of it towards the end of its journey from farm to table, either in the market or the consumer’s house. Assuming the worst, that means that half the food we import, half the product of those poisoned rivers, half the cause of that pesticide runoff, ends up in the trash before it’s eaten. And I know from personal experience (I’ve written about it here) that our garbage cans are often filled with perfectly good clothes, working appliances, unused cleaning products, and mountains of bedding.

It IS terrible, the state of the environment in China, and I’m glad the Chinese are working to clean it up. But we need to accept responsibility too, and look at our habits. The fridge doesn’t need to be full to feel secure, your drawers don’t need to overflow. Just because you can’t see the effects of your consumption doesn’t mean they’re not there.

One Comment

  • Thanks for calling attention to this. The very nature of consumerism demands our ignorance of where products come from and the damage they cause on the way to the chain store shelf. Our economy must not leave a wake of sweatshop casualties and polluted landscapes. -Michael O’Neil, Green Party Of Brooklyn