Legislators and policy advisers are pushing agricultural issues such as food production and farmers' incomes to the top of the agenda as the annual plenary session of the NPC opens today. The country faced a tough task maintaining last years' growth momentum while continuing to boost crop output and the living standards of nearly 900 million peasants, according to a food research report by the Economic Committee of the CPPCC, Xinhua said. Despite a jump in grain production last year - with a 9 per cent increase marking the first growth since 1999 - the country is still 4 million tonnes short of self-sufficiency, according to official figures. 'This shows that a tight situation in food supply still prevails and is not going to go away any time soon,' said CPPCC representative Duan Yingbi , who took part in the research. 'For sure, 2004 was a bumper harvest, but we cannot afford to rest on our laurels.' Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu warned the country had rarely been successful in keeping food production at a consistent level, Xinhua reported. In another worrisome indication of pending trouble, the income gap between rural and urban residents continues to widen, which the representatives consider a major obstacle to 'the building of a harmonious society', the avowed mission of President Hu Jintao's government. Between 1997 and 2003, per capita income for farmers increased 4 per cent a year, while that of urban dwellers grew by 8 per cent a year, according to figures from the National Bureau of Statistics. Average annual income for farmers reached 2,936 yuan last year, up 6.8 per cent over 2003. But the national average income across all sectors of the community was 8,300 yuan two years ago. The income gap seemed to have a major bearing on social stability, the representatives warned. The CPPCC report also suggested that the government should provide more funding to build and repair irrigation systems in the countryside. Much of the existing infrastructure is in poor condition and hinders attempts to improve agricultural efficiency. Late last year, the central government issued a set of top-level directives in the No1 Document to pledge support to the rural poor. The document stipulates governments at all levels should grant more subsidies to farmers and gradually drop agricultural taxes.