11/12/2013 05:55 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

How Land Rights Can Curb China's Toxic Harvest

By Gao Yu, Landesa country director in China

From poisonous rice to melamine infused milk, reports of tainted food are a regular occurrence in China.

This year alone, farmers in Shandong Province were found to be using an illegal and highly toxic pesticide to grow ginger, and a food safety inspection showed that almost half of the rice for sale in the city of Guangzhou contained excessive cadmium, a hazardous metal.

Not surprisingly, the farmland that produces this food is equally contaminated.

According to a 2011 report by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), 21.5 percent of soil samples from 364 rural villages failed to meet national soil quality standards. There is widespread belief that the real extent of the pollution may be far worse. Earlier this year, when a Beijing lawyer asked the MEP to release its soil pollution data, the Ministry refused stating that the data is a state secret.

These incidents have helped to focus public attention on the alarming truth about agricultural pollution and food safety in China.

How China's farmers became the world's largest consumers of pesticides and chemical fertilizers is a story that has its roots in China's unique property rights system.

Rural land across China is owned by village collectives. Farmers have 30-year rights under law, which could provide sufficient tenure security. However, those 30-year rights are often not legally documented and are increasingly violated, with farmers subjected to poorly compensated expropriations by local governments. The result: land tenure insecurity leading to short planning horizons. This naturally leads farmers to maximize crop output without sufficient regard for soil quality, degradation, or sustainability.

It is this toxic mix of land tenure insecurity and a blind drive for productivity that has helped give rise to China's tainted fields.

There is no denying that the use of fertilizer and pesticides played an important role in helping China become relatively self-sufficient in food production. But now it is having the opposite effect. This presents government officials with a challenge that grows with each passing year.

According to official figures announced by the Ministry of Land Resources in January this year, heavy metal pollution alone is estimated to cause the loss of 10 million tons of grain - - annually. The contamination of another 12 million tons annually, will incur 20 billion yuan in direct economic losses. The total loss, 22 million tons, is enough to feed millions of people for a year.

Likewise, the overuse of poor quality chemical fertilizers in China has polluted countless lakes and estuaries, and is also a significant factor for greenhouse gas emissions.

This reliance on chemicals and pesticides is unsustainable both environmentally and economically. The fertilizers and pesticides require significant materials and energy to produce, many of which are not renewable.

To break this harmful habit, China needs to fundamentally shift its agricultural production and investment behavior. This includes: educating farmers; better regulating the fertilizer industry; enforcing laws against agricultural pollution; testing and strictly labeling food; nurturing the market for organic food and -- critically -- ensuring farmers have secure and stable land tenure rights.

Farmers' 30-year use rights to the land they till are supposed to be legally documented with an official certificate and contract. However, according to a nationwide survey on rural land rights conducted by Landesa in 2011, only 37 percent of rural households have the documentation of their land rights required by law. As demand for land continues to climb, farmers who have no documentation are increasingly insecure as well as more vulnerable to land takings with no or very low compensation.

It is increasingly clear that the basis for sustainable agricultural production and associated investments is greater tenure security for farmers, substantiated by laws, policies, and systems. Research has shown that without this tenure security, the investments required for sustainable agriculture are not sensible from an economic perspective.

The path toward supporting a more sustainable agricultural approach in China begins with further legislation and policies to strengthen farmers' 30 year land use rights (to make the rights perpetual): reforming land expropriation legislation to limit takings and increase compensation; accelerating the legal documentation of farmers' land rights; establishing a nationwide land registration system to facilitate and nurture a healthy and secure land transaction market, further restricting illegal land conversion to non-agricultural use; and adopting policies that promote investment in sustainable agriculture.

China, it turns out, is especially suited for sustainable agriculture, including organic farming. Organic farming capitalizes on Chinese agriculture's natural strengths: high labor availability, small parcel size, and little access to capital input and machinery.

There is a ready market for such "greener" produce. An estimated of 80 percent of middle-class consumers in China are willing to pay more for safer food products. Demand for sustainable or organic produce is certain to expand as China grows more affluent and educated and as food safety problems continue to capture headlines.

More secure and stronger land rights for farmers are essential to ensuring a healthier harvest. In fact, there is no other way China can achieve the critical goals of environmental conservation, food safety and increased economic opportunities for farmers.

Gao Yu is China Country Director at Landesa, a global development non-profit that works to secure land rights for the world's poor. Follow us @Landesa_Global