The country's arable land bank fell by 40,700 hectares last year, to 121.73 million hectares, still above the government's 120 million "critical" mark, the Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR) said yesterday.
The figures were published in the 2007 National Land and Resources Communiqu. The total arable land area at the end of 2006 was 122 million hectares, the MLR report said.
Hu Cunzhi, head of the ministry's planning commission, said the figure represents the smallest annual decrease since 2001, when the arable land bank was 127.6 million hectares.
Hu attributed the slowdown to government efforts to stop arable land being returned to forest and the fact there had been fewer natural disasters than in previous years.
The introduction of rigid land protection rules and campaigns to arrest violators had also helped, he said.
The ministry is drafting a long-term land usage plan that will run until 2020, Hu said.
"The plan will take into consideration land use across all sectors," he said.
"So we are soliciting opinions from various ministries.
"Once the draft is complete, it will be presented to the State Council for approval," he said.
"The aim of the plan is to better protect the limited arable land and make more efficient use of areas designated for development," Hu said.
When planning transport projects, for example, we must ensure they are integrated and that land is not wasted due to overlapping, he said.
The government is unlikely to alter the 120 million bottom line for arable land before 2020, even though more accurate figures will be available on completion of the ongoing second national land use survey (2007-09), Hu said.
The survey is expected to paint a much-changed picture of China's landscape since the first survey was done in 1996.
"Unless there is a biological revolution (that boosts per-hectare grain yields), we will adhere to the bottom line to ensure people are fed," Hu said.
Also, as a result of a series of measures and crackdowns by the central government, local government officials, once driven solely by profit, are more wary of the need to protect their arable land banks, he said.
A nationwide investigation launched in September led to the arrest of about 2,700 local officials who either failed to seek permission from higher authorities before developing land or ignored the rules on the expansion of development zones, he said.
The government has implemented a slew of measures to prevent arable land being lost to urbanization, Hu said.
In January, it issued a circular stating that any development project that is slated to occupy farmland must first be granted approval before it can proceed.
"(Without approval) No water, power or gas shall be provided to these projects, and no financial institutions shall be permitted to offer them loans," the circular said.