Despite a bumper summer harvest, the agriculture ministry does not expect grain output to grow this year because of the likelihood of further natural disasters and incidences of crop disease. It would be 'very difficult' for the autumn grain harvest, which accounts for 80 per cent of annual production, to keep growing this year, Chen Mengshan, the Ministry of Agriculture's chief economist told a press conference on the rural economic outlook yesterday. 'The autumn harvest is facing a great challenge from [foreseeable] natural disasters, and crop diseases and pests ... it is not showing us an optimistic prospect,' Chen said. The central meteorological bureau forecast possible drought in parts of the northeast, the most important grain-producing area, from now until November, he said. Temporary droughts could also occur in the south, which would also be hit by more typhoons than usual. However, he said the government would work to ensure that annual grain production remained above 500 million tonnes. The ministry said last year's total harvest was 546 million tonnes. Official data shows that the mainland's grain output has grown for each of the past seven years. But the figures are widely doubted by analysts and industry players as the usual production cycle is 'growth for two years, stagnation for one year and reduction for another'. The central government has greatly increased investment in agriculture in recent years as soaring global grain prices put populous China at the centre of world attention. While it has reiterated its principle of maintaining 95 per cent self-sufficiency, clear tasks have been assigned to provincial governments. Heilongjiang, the leading grain producer, vowed to raise its output to 55 million tonnes this year by increasing agricultural investment by a quarter to 7 billion yuan (HK$8.4 billion), Chen said. Though pork prices have been soaring for several months and hit historic highs, adding to already high inflation, Chen said the government would not intervene in prices directly but rather guide pig production. He said the number of pigs on farms had grown moderately for five months, and he expected 'there will be more pigs for the market in the next half year and supply will be adequate'. To stabilise vegetable prices, which started the mainland's ongoing inflation last year, the government is establishing 10,000 rural co-operatives which will allow farmers to sell vegetables directly to supermarkets to avoid traders' mark-ups. The ministry also required governments of big and medium-sized cities to set aside their own land to grow vegetables to reduce their dependence on vegetable suppliers further away. 'After years of fluctuation in vegetable prices, [we know that] to prevent big fluctuations we need to build up a monitoring system on production,' he said. Twenty types of vegetable in 200 major vegetable growing counties were already being monitored by the ministry.