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China Focus: China eyes sustainable, strong agriculture

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BEIJING, Feb. 3 (Xinhua) -- Despite old land and unfavorable weather, farmer Xu Jianmin managed to double his harvest in central China last year, in some cases increasing the value of produce 10 fold.

The 40-year-old farmer amassed a sprawling 3,300 mu (220 hectares) of farmland in Henan Province, a region that produces one-tenth of the country's total grain output, after working with locals to transfer land use contracts.

Overhauling waterlogged ground using modern equipment and hiring professional consultants, he increased the grain yield to 600 kilograms per mu last year and sold organic vegetables at a much higher price.

"I wish I could build more farms across the country and bring my products to overseas markets," Xu said.

Xu's modern farm is not an isolated case in China.

With the new drive to steer agriculture on a sustainable path, the country has seen an increasing number of high-productivity farms.

The "No. 1 Central Document", recently published by the central government, outlines their goal to accelerate the transformation of agricultural development to build a strong and modernized industry.

GREEN, GREEN INDUSTRY

China should develop agriculture with a balanced emphasis on quality and quantity instead of pursuing high output at the cost of resource depletion, the document says.

Riding on a wave of reforms and the country's opening up, agriculture has boomed since 1978, with grain output on an unyielding rise. China's grain output grew 0.9 percent year on year to 607.1 million tonnes in 2014, marking 11 years in a row of growth.

The nation also prides itself on feeding more than a fifth of the world's population on only 10 percent of arable land worldwide, despite water scarcity and scattered fertile land.

However, this commendable feat now faces grave challenges.

Experts point out that behind the surging crop yields is an excessive reliance on pesticides and chemical fertilizers. National chemical fertilizer use amounts to around a third of the world's total consumption. Chinese farmers apply 70 percent more chemicals to crops than the world average.

The practice, while boosting output, has taken its toll on the land and consequences are beginning to take shape. Land fertility falls, with around 40 percent of workable land degenerating, data from the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) showed.

Unsustainable practices need to come to an end, says Zhu Lizhi, a research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

"Quantity should not be the only measure and the comprehensive competitiveness should prevail," he said.

To address the problem, the new plan vows to promote green cultivation, create "high-standard arable land" with better facilities, protect arable land, build irrigation works and promote water conservation.

MOC official Tang Ke said the country will encourage targeted fertilization, step up integration of water and fertilizer and promote green disease and pest control to ensure the chemical fertilizer and pesticide consumption stop increasing by 2020.

ECONOMIC FOUNDATION

China's agricultural origins date back to 7,000 BC, when the country's occupants first began planting rice. Even ancient emperors knew the significance of the sector, prioritizing labor in the fields at the cost of slower business growth.

It is still dubbed as the country's economic foundation, even though agriculture has been dwarfed by an enormous manufacturing industry. Unfortunately, many farmers still stick to traditional methods, unable to access or afford modernization.

Reforms are badly needed to break the restriction of outdated practices and will bring vitality to the sector, said Ye Xingqing, head of the agricultural economy department of the Development Research Center under the State Council.

One measure written into the recently published outline suggested the government should guide the transfer of land use contracts and encourage rural households to expand their operation to build big family farms.

Currently, Chinese farmers hold land contracts for their own patch of land, slowing the mechanization process.

Other reforms include more agricultural restructuring, strengthening the role of science and technology and more efficient distribution.

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