China's total arable land falls for fourth year in 2017: resources ministry

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China’s total arable land declined for a fourth consecutive year in 2017 as a result of new construction, natural disasters and environmental requirements, as well as agricultural production changes, the natural resources ministry said.

The Ministry of Natural Resources said the country’s total arable land fell to 134.86 million hectares, a decline of 60,900 hectares compared to the previous year.

Land used for construction reached 39.59 million hectares, with 534,400 hectares newly added in 2017, the ministry said in a report published on Friday.

China has to feed nearly a quarter of the world’s population with just 7 percent of its total farmland, and food security has long been regarded as a major source of political legitimacy for the ruling Communist Party.

But rapid industrial development has left large swathes of agricultural land and water unfit for human use, with more than 3.33 million hectares - an area the size of Belgium - deemed too polluted to grow crops, according to a 2013 survey. As many as 10 million hectares are contaminated by heavy metals, according to 2015 figures.

While China aims to make 90 percent of contaminated land safe for planting by the end of 2020, it is also committed to an extensive reforestation program as well as an “ecological red line” system that will put large parts of the country out of bounds for both agriculture and industry.

The cabinet, the State Council, said earlier this year that it would hold local governments fully responsible for retaining and protecting arable land under their jurisdiction, and for improving food quality, with failures likely to affect promotion prospects and even result in dismissal.

Reporting by David Stanway; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman