BEIJING, March 19 (Reuters) - China's environmental authorities have passed a plan to tackle soil pollution as the government becomes increasingly concerned about the risk to food posed by widespread contamination of farmland.
About 3.33 million hectares (8 million acres) of China's farmland - about the size of Belgium - is too polluted for crops, a government official said in December, after decades of industrial development and poorly enforced laws allowed poisonous metals and discharge to seep into soil and water.
The plan, together with a soil pollution law in the drafting stage, is expected to focus on protecting food supplies and ensuring that contaminated crops do not enter the food chain.
China has time and again published policies and plans aimed at addressing environmental problems but it has long struggled to bring big polluting industries and growth-obsessed local governments to heel.
The top leadership is increasingly worried about the problem, with premier Li Keqiang declaring a 'war on pollution' during his opening speech of parliament this month.
The vice-environment minister, Wu Xiaoqing, told reporters this month the new soil pollution plan would help to create the legal mechanism to stop soil the problem getting any worse.
Meeting this week, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said cleaning up soil was a first priority for food safety and a fundamental basis for creating a healthy environment, according to a report published by the ministry's official newspaper on Wednesday.
The discovery last year of dangerous levels of cadmium in rice produced in Hunan, the country's top rice-growing region, caused an outcry with members of the public venting frustration that even their staple food appeared to be unsafe.
The plan proposes measures including targeting various sources of soil pollution as well as management of land for agriculture and setting up a process for cleaning damaged soil.
A recent government agency survey found that restoration of contaminated soil accounted for only 3.7 percent of the environmental protection business in China, highlighting the potential for growth.
Agriculture minister Han Changfu said this month pilot projects had been launched to rehabilitate farmland.
However, pollution experts have told Reuters the projects were only small and did not begin to redress the extent of the problem. One of the major concerns is who will eventually pay for clearing up polluted soil.
The action plan, approved in principle, will be submitted to the State Council, or cabinet, for approval. The ministry is also working on a draft law on soil pollution. (Reporting By Dominique Patton. Additional reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Robert Birsel)