BEIJING (Reuters) - China should boost imports of food so it can dedicate more of its scarce water supplies to energy production, especially in arid but coal-rich regions like Xinjiang and Ningxia, a senior environmental official said on Monday.
Mu Guangfeng, the head of the environment impact assessment office at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, told a conference China should open up further to overseas food supplies and put stricter limits on the consumption of water for agriculture in areas like Xinjiang.
He said China, the world's top manufacturing nation, sends thousands of ships to overseas ports and many of them return empty. Filling them with grain would be an ideal solution.
"We cannot skip over energy, and if we open up our minds a little, can we not further restrict agricultural water use in places like northern Shaanxi and then break a taboo by using the space on our ships to buy grain from overseas?" he said.
Mu's comments reflect a wider debate among policymakers about the best use of China's increasingly scarce water resources as industrial and agricultural demand soars.
Severe drought and scorching heat has damaged more than a million hectares of farmland in China's Henan and Inner Mongolia provinces, with no immediate relief in sight, state news agency Xinhua reported.
China's per capita water supplies are only a quarter of the global average, and in the northwest, shortages threaten to hold back ambitious plans to develop the coal reserves, either by producing synthetic natural gas or delivering power to eastern coastal markets through long-distance cross-country grids.
China is already the world's top importer of soybeans, and has slowly introduced foreign corn into the domestic market.
But it remains reluctant to allow large-scale imports of staples such as wheat or rice, and has vowed to keep its total food self-sufficiency rate at around 95 percent, despite proposals from researchers that the figure could be relaxed.
"I believe that increasing imported food will help protect China's freshwater, and give ecologically fragile coal-producing regions the ability to recover more quickly," said Mu.
"Some people say we can't import food, but what about energy? More than 60 percent of our oil is imported, and nearly 50 percent of our natural gas," he added.
(Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)