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Print Edition> Nation
UPDATED: April 27, 2012 NO. 18 MAY 3, 2012
Feeding a Populous Country
A shortage of labor and land holds back Chinese agriculture
By Yin Pumin

NEW SEEDS OF HOPE: An old farmer works at his farmland in the suburb of Nanning, southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, on May 14, 2011 (HUANG XIAOBANG)

China's grain imports in 2011 surpassed 61 million tons, indicating that its overall self-sufficiency rate in grain was less than 90 percent.

For the past few years, China has insisted that, to ensure national food security, 95 percent is the bottom line of the country's grain self-sufficiency requirement.

"But now the volume of imported grain has reached 10.7 percent of the domestic grain output. I am afraid this will affect grain security if the imported amount keeps increasing," said Chen Xiwen, Director of the Office for the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee's Leading Group on Rural Work, in March.

The supply of other major agricultural produce in China also depends increasingly on the international market. According to Customs statistics, China imported about 4 million tons of corn from the United States and 52.6 million tons of soybeans from overseas markets in 2011.

To avoid becoming too reliant on imports, Chen suggested that the country increase its grain output by protecting arable land and further improving agriculture through science and technology.

Preserving farmland

Despite the country's enormous demand for grain, farmland in China has shrunk over the past decade.

According to the Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR), China's farmland has shrunk by more than 8 million hectares since 1997. In August last year, China had less than 121.7 million hectares of arable land, MLR figures showed.

To ensure grain security, China has set a "redline" to guarantee its arable land never falls below 120 million hectares.

Land use sanctioned by local governments to construct projects such as golf courses, railways and industrial parks, is an obstacle to the nation's farmland preservation, according to the ministry.

"Local governments' reliance on land transfer as a major revenue source poses a threat to the country's grain security," Chen said. He pointed out that some local governments are using the name "land reform" to expropriate arable land, causing the amount of available arable land to decrease in quantity and quality.

According to the MLR, the area of land use projects that violate state farmland preservation policies surged 11 percent year on year to 16,400 hectares in the first nine months of 2011.

Environmental pollution from the excessive use of agricultural chemicals and the inappropriate disposal of heavy metal has also taken its toll.

Heavy metal pollution has so far damaged approximately 10 percent of the country's farmland and caused the loss of 12 million tons of grain every year, according to research by the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

In 2011, China restored a total of 300,000 hectares of farmland and developed 4 million hectares of high-quality farmland, according to MLR data.

The ministry plans to add 27 million hectares of high-quality farmland throughout the country by the end of 2015. "The Central Government has attached great importance to preserving farmland and local governments have also enhanced their efforts to protect farmland in recent years," Xu said.

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