Chinese officials and agricultural experts have raised an alert on food security as the country is set to see a drop in grain output for the fifth consecutive year.
"With the grain yield continuing to suffer a plunge since 1998, the country has been depending on reserves to keep a balance between supply and demand," said Wan Baorui, former vice-minister of agriculture.
Wan, now deputy director of the Agricultural and Rural Committee of the National People's Congress, China's top legislature, warned that the reserves, abundant as they are, would be depleted in two years unless the situation improves.
"By then we have to import more grain at high prices to meet the expected shortage," he said.
The senior lawmaker's warning came after agricultural experts forecast a fall in this year's total grain output.
Earlier, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) announced that this year's summer grain yield was estimated to fall by 2.4 percent, or 2.4 million tons, due to a sharp decrease in growing acreage.
China's grain output dived to 457 million tons in 2002 from a record high of 512 million tons in 1998, according to NBS data.
Meanwhile, the country's crop-planting acreage also dropped from 113.78 million hectares in 1998 to 103.9 million hectares in 2002.
The successive decreases, coupled with farmers' fading interest in growing crops as a result of falling grain prices, have prompted agricultural researchers to worry about a potential shortage.
"If the trend continues, how can we feed such a huge population, which is estimated to top 1.6 billion by 2030?" asked Liu Lianfu, president of China Green Food Association.
He cautioned that besides the shrinking grain yield and crop acreage, water shortages and growing consumption would also pose a threat to food security.
Statistics suggest that there has been an annual grain shortfall of about 25-35 million tons in China since 2000.
The shortfall has been made up for by the huge State grain inventory, which was estimated to stand at 250 million tons following successive bumper harvests between 1995 and 1998.
Liu, however, predicted that a grain shortfall may appear after 2005 as the inventory can only bridge the shortfall for another two years.
Given the grave situation, he urged top priority for food security in the long-term development blueprint as well as the establishment of an early warning system to address any possible emergencies.
China is expected to import 20 million to 30 million tons of grain every year in the next few decades, agricultural experts estimated earlier.
In 2030, China's total demand will be approximately 640 million tons every year.
In stark contrast with the challenge highlighted by some agricultural experts, others sound a more upbeat note.
Lin Yifu, director of the China Centre for Economic Research at Peking University, said the agriculture sector has huge potential to tap the opportunities arising from the country's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Membership in the world trade body will provide China with more opportunities to solve its long-standing problem of grain security, the researcher said.
He noted that the WTO entry would help the country speed up introduction of up-to-date high-tech farming technologies and tools to strengthen its production capability and boost output.
(China Daily October 9, 2003)