Key policy document places greater emphasis on cleaner land and safer food
Rather than boast about ever-rising harvests, Beijing now appears determined to concentrate on improving the quality of agricultural production as pollution, toxic farmland and tainted produce become pressing national concerns.
This year's so-called No1 Central Document, which is jointly issued each January by the Communist Party's Central Committee and State Council and traditionally concerns rural development, devoted an entire chapter to environmentally-friendly agriculture and a paragraph to ensuring food safety.
In years past, policymakers would only set aside a few scant sentences one of these issues, said professor Zheng Fengtian of Renmin University, who closely follows the annual document.
"In the past we focused too much on the quantity of production, but now none of us would want bigger output if it meant greater pollution and questionable safety," Zheng said.
Official statistics showed the mainland harvested 602 million tonnes of grain last year, making it the 10th straight year of growth.
This year's directive called for the "strictest food safety supervision of the whole system".
The quality of farm produce and food safety would be monitored, appraised and improved as needed.
It also called for greater efforts to reverse the effects of pollution and contamination on farmland, make more efficient use of arable land and water, and start some pilot soil restoration schemes.
About 3.3 million hectares of the country's farmland is too polluted for cultivating crops, according to the government's second land survey, which was released last month.
Liu Fujiang, an agronomist at Beijing's Anbound Consulting, said: "The use of fertilizer and pesticides has grown faster than the growth in grain production, an issue we raise every year."
Research indicated that serious land degradation was widespread, Liu said: "For example, in areas with degraded soil, trees just stop bearing fruit."
The directive also touched on other major issues discussed at top-level meetings late last year, including expanding rural land reforms, improving food security, and encouraging innovation in rural finance.
Professor Zhu Qizhen of the China Agricultural University said a shortcoming of the document was to allow local governments to allocate farmland to villages as a collective entity, not to individual households as some had sought.
"It means that a village owns some land, and a villager is told that he has a share of it, but where his share is located is unclear," he explained.
He believed this was creating hidden risks, because "in this case, when a plot of land is polluted, it's hard to find the person responsible, or when a dispute over land sales emerges, it causes confusion", he said.