Experts have warned that China's arable land might drop below the red line of 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares) in six years' time due to rampant illegal use.
The Ministry of Land and Resources recently announced the land use plan for this year, saying the area of cultivated land to be used for construction will be basically the same as last year.
But official statistics show construction took up 289,000 hectares of farmland last year, slightly more than the planned 267,000 hectares. The area of arable land has shrunk by 307,000 hectares in the past year.
"If arable land shrinks at such a pace, the red line will be breached in six years," an official was quoted by Shanghai-based China Business News as saying.
For China, retaining 120 million hectares of arable land until 2020 is the bottom line to guarantee its food safety.
With nearly 500 million tons of grain produced from the current 122 million hectares of cultivated land, China has been able to just meet the food demand of 1.3 billion people.
"As the total population will keep growing, food supply for so many people can only be met with the retention of 120 million hectares of farmland, said Chen Zhouqi, director of the research center under the ministry.
Once farmland is used for construction, it is difficult to recover, experts warned.
China's farmland has been shrinking fast in the past few years. During the 10th Five-Year Plan (2000-05), the annual loss of arable land was 1.23 million hectares.
The 11th Five-Year plan (2006-10) has vowed to keep at least 120 million hectares of cultivated land by 2010, which means the annual loss of arable land should be less than 433,000 hectares.
But the central government wants the red line to be safe until 2020. Insiders speculate that this might be the reason the land utilization plan for 2006-20, which the ministry started drafting in July 2005, has still not been approved.
Difficulty lies in the implementation of the policy at local levels.
"Local governments all have their own development goals and are not afraid of losing arable land," said Zhang Fengrong, a professor with China Agriculture University, at a meeting organized by the ministry to seek solutions.
To curb overheated investments in fixed assets, the ministry decided to strictly control land use, and introduced a nationwide land regulatory system last year.
Nine land inspection bodies will be set up by July to supervise land use and management by local governments, which often approve illegal investment projects despite central macro-control policies.
The ministry also strictly controls the building of villas, golf courses and training centers for local government departments and state-owned enterprises.
The number of illegal land use cases increased last year. The government detected 131,077 cases, 17.3 percent up year-on-year. The area of land involved surged 76.7 percent to nearly 100,000 hectares, according to the ministry.
The warning came as the State Council is to start the second national survey of land on July 1 as a major effort to draw a clearer picture of the country's farmland.
(China Daily May 15, 2007)