Lu Xinshe, deputy head of the ministry of land and resources, said the country was struggling to hold the 120 million hectare “red line” considered the minimum land areas needed for food self-sufficiency.
With industrialisation eating into the countryside, he said the government would halt plans to restore arable land to nature.
“We will not plan any new large scale projects to return farmland to its natural state, beyond those that have already been planned,” he was quoted as saying by the Reuters news agency.
Any change in the balance of food production causes unease in a country where the elderly still remember the devastating famines of the early 1960s that killed between 15 million and 40 million people.
But the decision to halt many environmental restoration programmes is likely to have a knock-on effect. The government has been compensating farmers in the north and west of China to give up farmland as a central pillar of its strategy to fight desertification and water shortages. The end of ploughing helps stabilise the soil, while stopping irrigation alleviates water shortages.
Tree planting has also helped the country offset the increased emission of carbon dioxide from factories.
But food is the more immediate priority. By the end of last year, the amount of arable land in China had decreased to within 1% of the “red line.”
Against the backdrop of rising global food prices, Chinese companies have bought the rights to farm swaths of land in the Philippines, Laos, Russia, and Kazakshstan. They have invested in biofuel crops in Zambia and the Congo. By one estimate there are now one million Chinese farmers in Africa.
But the government is committed to self-sufficiency, which requires the production of 500 million tonnes of grain a year. To maintain this level, prime minister Wen Jiabao has said the state would increase spending on agricultural production by 20%, well above inflation.
He has also asked advisers to recommend new areas where cultivation can be expanded. Among the areas suggested is the Sanjiang region in Heilongjiang, a protected wetland.
But as The Guardian reported last month, the pressure to industrialise the far western province of Xinjiang is likely to further erode food output, reducing the government’s options. With industrialisation set to continue for decades, the shrinkage of land is likely to increase the pressure to use more fertiliser and genetically modified crops. A fifth of the nation’s paddy fields now grow hybrid strains of rice, according to a report today by the Xinhua news agency.