As China Urbanizes, Fears Grow That Cropland Is Vanishing

Farming in Gangzhong, China Photograph by Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

As China’s leaders continue to pursue sweeping urbanization plans, concerns are growing about the fate of the country’s cropland. The latest sign: a joint ministerial announcement that officials must protect agricultural plots on city outskirts from runaway development.

Prime arable land bordering municipalities and towns and located near traffic routes will be formally categorized as “permanent basic farmland” and preserved for cultivation, announced the Ministry of Land and Resources and Ministry of Agriculture in a notice issued on Monday. Fourteen cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, will be first to carry out the policy, which is to be rolled out nationwide by the end of 2016.

“During rapid urbanization, high-yield farmland has been gradually ‘eaten’ by steel and cement,” said Land and Resources Minister Jiang Daming, reported the official Xinhua News Agency on Nov. 3. “It is a pressing problem that the expansion of cities is encroaching on prime farmland,” said the notice.

China’s leaders earlier this year announced plans to lift the proportion of urbanization from 53.7 percent to 60 percent by 2020. Less than one-fifth of China’s population was living in cities in 1978, when China launched its reform and opening program.

“More and more farmers see agriculture as a secondary job. Some farmers no longer attach importance to growing crops as they used to. Some lands are even left unattended,” said Minister of Agriculture Han Changfu in an interview with Xinhua last month.

With less than 10 percent of the world’s arable land but with one-fifth the population, China’s leaders have long been obsessed with food security. The country must stick to a policy of “basic grain self-sufficiency” and must “not relax domestic food production at any time,” said the No. 1 Central Document, an annual decree on agricultural policy, released by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in January.

China reported 334 million acres of arable land in its last survey, at the end of 2012. That quantity was above the country’s self-proclaimed “red line” of 297 million acres.

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