The Chinese Government has pledged to halt the shrinkage of acreage devoted to growing grain, fearing a continuous decline in the area would threaten the country's food supply.
To balance grain output with demand, China needs to stabilize its total area of grain cultivation at 110 million hectares for the next few years, said Wu Hongyao, a divisional director in the Ministry of Agriculture.
Ministerial statistics have indicated that in 2000, farmland devoted to grain production plummeted by 6 million hectares on a year-on-year basis to 107.1 million hectares, the lowest since 1949.
The acreage downsizing momentum apparently continued this year, as initial arrangements made by local agricultural authorities have cut the area by another 2.66 million hectares, according to Wu.
Experts said the shrinkage was partly due to consecutive years of bumper grain harvests. Grain output exceeded 490 million tons every year for five years before 2000, which led some local governments to discourage grain production.
Prices for wheat and rice fell by nearly 8 per cent in 1999 from the previous year, which hurt farmers' interests in expanding and investing in production, and prompted them to dedicate more fields to cash crops, such as cotton and vegetables, according to Huang Binxing of the National Statistics Bureau.
Huang, an expert with the bureau's Agricultural Survey Department, claimed the failure to correctly interpret and implement State agricultural restructuring policies in some regions was also to blame for the irrationally reduced grain crop planting area.
Since 1999, China has doubled its efforts to readjust the crop growing structure to match market demands and local conditions, according to Huang.
The nation returned a huge number of cultivated fields to their natural state and increased the production of winter wheat and paddy rice in the north, while reducing the acreage of spring wheat in Northeast China and indica rice in South China.
But some local authorities failed to give out exact quota about how much acreage should be cut, and farmers in many areas rushed headlong into growing cash crops, which experts have now said could result in oversupply, according to Huang.
"Thanks to sufficient reserves, the fall in grain acreage -- which partly resulted in a 9 percent plunge in China's grain output last year -- has so far not affected market supply," Wu said.
For this reason the country was still not importing any more grain than it did in previous years, he said.
Although disparities in grain supply and demand created by area shrinkage could be filled by the country's mammoth grain stockpiles, Wu conceded that if the gap continued to exist or expand, the country's food supplies would certainly be affected.
A 9.7 percent drop in acreage reserved for winter wheat and predictions of spring droughts have worried the Ministry of Agriculture about the country's summer harvest, according to one ministry official.
Safeguarding food supplies is listed as one of the ministry's main priorities for the next five years, according to Vice-Minister Wan Baorui.
(China Daily 02/13/2001)