The government has suspended a plan to convert 1.07 million hectares of farmland into forest so it can keep its pledge to maintain a minimum of 120 million hectares of arable land by 2010.
The State Council issued a statement on Monday calling for a halt to the ongoing forestation project.
Authorities had planned to return 1.3 million hectares of farmland to forest or grassland between 2006 and 2010 but the rapid loss of farmland has required the plan to be put on hold.
However, the reforestation of some 267,000 hectares of farmland that was agreed in 2006 will continue, the State Council said.
Some experts have suggested the move reflects policymakers' concerns about food security due to the decrease in farmland.
Currently, China has 122.07 million hectares of farmland, close to the warning line of 120 million hectares the country needs to maintain during its 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10) to ensure sufficient food supplies.
To avoid falling below the danger line, farmland losses must not exceed 433,333 hectares per year until 2010.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Land and Resources, reforestation consumed 339,333 hectares of farmland last year, while urbanization accounted for a further 258,533 hectares.
"(Going below the 120 million hectare figure) is unacceptable for several leading officials who believe China should be self-sufficient in terms of food," a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who asked not to be named, said.
"We are getting very close to the warning level of 120 million hectares that is deemed necessary to ensure sufficient supplies," he said.
However, officials from the State Forestry Administration (SFA) have a different view.
"This is only a pause, not a stop. We will continue to implement the project in the coming years," Liu Qing from the returning farmland to forestation project office under the SFA, said.
She said most of the land under discussion was low yield.
"There is no question of interfering with grain production. Our project even helps improve the local environment and boost farmers' incomes," she said.
The government launched its campaign to return farmland to forest in 2000. It has involved 124 million farmers from more than 32 million households across 25 provincial areas.
To date, more than 24 million hectares of farmland have been returned to forests, accounting for about 60 percent of all the country's new forest areas, the Xinhua News Agency said.
Farmers affected by the campaign have been granted subsidies, which account for almost 10 percent of their average annual incomes.
As well as giving details of the suspension of the project, the State Council notice called on local governments to continue to find ways to improve farmers' living standards.
A special fund will also be established to help ensure food and energy supplies for farmers involved.
(China Daily September 12, 2007)