By Zhan Yan (China Features)
Zhou Siyu, 57, after a lifetime working the land as one of China's millions of peasants, worries about food security in her home of Longkou, Shandong Province.
"We used to store big urns of grain at home every year, but now few families do so and instead we buy grain. The young are working away from the farms. The buildings and roads take too much high-yield cropland and shrubs or flowers have been planted in beautification schemes."
Zhou's worries reflect the challenge China faces in seeking a balance between food security and the urbanization of its vast rural population.
China feeds a fifth of the world's population with a land mass largely unsuited for agriculture (around 14 percent of the territory comprises arable land). Feeding 1.3 billion people remains one of the government's top concerns after 30 years of reform and opening-up.
In July, the State Council approved a medium to long-term guideline to ensure food security, setting grain production targets at 500 billion kg by 2010, 540 billion kg by 2020 and 95 percent self-sufficiency by 2020.
It also prescribes ways to protect farmland, construct rural infrastructure and raise farmers' incomes.
One principle to ensure food security is the "bottom line": 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares) of farmland.
China presently has about 1.827 billion mu (121.8 million hectares), or 1.39 mu (0.09 hectares) per capita, about a third of the global average. In 1996, it had 1.951 billion mu (130.07 million hectares), or 1.59 mu (0.11 hectares) per person -- a loss of 6.4 percent of the arable land in 11 years mainly to urbanization.
Chen Xiwen, director of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Rural Work, says the authorities approve 4 million mu (266,667 hectares) for construction each year, including 2.82 million mu (188,000 hectares) of farmland. At that rate the bottom line is approaching fast.
China's urban population is also growing fast: from 17.9 percent of the total population in 1978 to 43.9 percent in 2006. The government is aiming for 70 percent by 2050, about average for a "relatively developed country".
A survey in 145 cities by the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research under the China Academy of Sciences showed 70 percent of new construction in large and medium-sized cities is on arable land. "The figure is 80.9 percent in some western areas," says Chen.
China reported 7,438 square km of urban area in 1981 and 32,521 square km in 2005, a 340-percent increase in 25 years.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture says China will need 1.824 billion mu (121.6 million hectares) of farmland in 2010 and 1.85 billion mu (123.33 million hectares) in 2030 to achieve 95 percent self-sufficiency, meaning the farmland area must increase.
However, some believe urbanization should not necessarily bring about a reduction in farmland or lead to an impending "grain crisis".
It could be attributed to "irrational urbanization", says Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher Li Chenggui. "Scientific urban planning could save farmland or use it more efficiently."
Minister of Land and Resources Xu Shaoshi says the government must protect farmland, ensuring development takes as little farmland as possible, and use more non-farm land and improve land use efficiency.
Experts believe China's two categories of land ownership are the root of the problem. "The system is why farmland disappears so easily," Li says.
Land ownership is divided into state-owned and collective-owned land. Collective-owned land, almost all rural and suburban land, is owned by the rural collective economic organization. Farmers do not own farmland, although they have the right to use and manage it.
Turning rural land into state-owned land, then into construction land, means profits. According to the national Land Administration Law, compensation for farmland appropriation for construction should be, at most, "30 times the average annual output in the previous three years."
The high profits may encourage local governments to allow contractors to turn rural land into state-owned construction land, Li says.
Some experts argue for just one form of ownership so the government can maintain overall control of planning, says Liu Weixin, deputy director of the Modern Urban and Rural Development Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
CASS researcher Li says grain output can also be increased through scientific breakthroughs such as hybrid rice; infrastructure construction to boost output of low and medium-yield land (about two thirds of the arable land in China); and the introduction of modern farm management.
This year, China could have a fifth consecutive bumper summer harvest, the longest run of such consecutive years since 1949, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
China produced 501.5 million tons of grain in 2007, making it 95 percent self-sufficient, according to the State Administration of Grain.
Premier Wen said in April that state grain storage was about 150 million to 200 million tons, double the world average, with 150 million tons equivalent to half the annual consumption.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization defines food security as all people, at all times, having access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.
Meanwhile Zhou Siyu remembers the extreme famine from 1959 to 1961, when "all the tree bark disappeared. People had to consume the barks to survive.”
This peasant woman still tends a small plot of cropland. "Our generation have experienced hunger and feel uneasy seeing high-yield farmland wasted. We’re afraid that hunger may l return when we're unprepared."