Government and Policy

Shrinking arable land threatens grain security

Updated: 2010-10-18 11:22
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BEIJING - Although China's success in feeding 22 percent of the world population using the world's less than 10 percent arable land has been hailed as a miracle, concern is growing that the country's shrinking arable land would jeopardize grain security.

The country's summer grain output inched down 0.3 percent from one year earlier to 123 million tonnes in the first half of this year after a prolonged drought in southwestern China. It was the first decline in seven years for China's summer grain output.

To ensure grain security, China set a "red line" to guarantee its arable land never shrinks to less than 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares).

According to statistics from China's Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR), the country is already edging dangerously close to its "red line", with just 1.826 billion mu available as of the end of last year.

China lost 123 million mu of arable land from 1997 to 2009.

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Analysts believed several major factors contributed to the arable land loss, such as increasing use of arable land for construction purposes, forest or grassland replanting programs as well as damage caused by natural disasters.

"As China is still in a period of rapid industrialization and urbanization, taking over some arable land is inevitable," said Wang Xiaoying, a researcher at the Rural Development Institute under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "But it is crucial to hold the bottom line."

The reclamation of barren land and rectification of land for construction uses would help ensure the arable land area, Wang said.

Kanayo F. Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, urged China to redouble efforts to maintain enough arable land to produce grain for its growing population.

"For China, limited access to agricultural land, along with a growing population, has always been a challenge," Nwanze told media reporters while attending a celebration in Rome to commemorate the World Food Day on Saturday.

Over the past few years, to ensure the 1.8-billion-mu "red line", China has rigidly restricted the conversion of arable land to land for construction, kept the total area of land for construction under control and given special protection to farmland.

According to China's Land Administrative Law, every plot of arable land turned over for housing or industrial projects must be replaced by an equivalent amount of land.

However, analysts pointed out loopholes in the policy, the most obvious of which is that reclaimed land is always not as arable as occupied croplands.

"China should improve its policy to ensure reclaimed land matches the used arable land not just in area, but also in production capacity," said Zeng Xibai, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

Further, Qiu Baoxing, vice minister of Housing and Urban-rural Development, said there was a dangerous trend when some local governments destroyed forests to reclaim farmland, which caused irreparable damages to the local environment.

To tackle the problem, the MLR urged local authorities to enhance implementation of the arable land policy, intensify monitoring and check conditions of reclaimed land, it said in a statement posted on its website Tuesday.

In the first nine months of this year the MLR found 85,000 mu of illegally occupied arable land, down 10.4 percent from one year earlier. Officials responsible for the illegal occupation were punished.

The Chinese government should also increase input to improve the production capacity of arable land, said Zeng.