China is rolling out a major rural land reform which aims to promote large-scale farming and consolidate unused small patches of farm land under larger cooperatives.
The reform scheme comes as China is experiencing a continuing process of industrialization and urbanization, in which more farmers are migrating to cities for jobs, leaving behind their contracted farm lands over which they have use rights.
"More and more farmers see agriculture as a secondary job. Some farmers no longer attach importance to growing crops as they used to. Some lands are even left unattended," Minister of Agriculture Han Changfu said in an interview with Xinhua on Friday.
The transition has triggered rising concerns over food security facing the world's most populous country.
The key solution is to promote the concentrated use of farm lands, nurture diversified agricultural businesses, and ensure that agriculture is also a profitable business, Han said, adding that the reform plan, which has been reviewed and passed by the central authorities, will be an important policy guide for rural land reforms and agriculture management.
"The transfer of rural land use rights as well as concentrated agricultural development is a significant issue for China's rural development. It is also a key agenda in China's deepening of rural reforms," he said.
According to government data, the number of Chinese migrant workers from rural regions in 2013 reached almost 270 million, which accounted for 45 percent of the total work force in rural areas. Meanwhile, 170 million migrant workers spent more than six months outside their hometowns last year.
Han said rural land transfer has also sped up in recent years. As of the end of June this year, 380 million mu (25 million hectares) of rural arable land had been transferred, which accounted for 28.8 percent of the nation's total contracted arable land by farmers, up 20 percentage points compared to year 2008.
"As more lands are transferred, farmers who remain in the fields have more land to manage. This creates an opportunity for them to introduce advanced agricultural technologies and equipment, paving the way for modern agriculture," according to the minister.
At the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee held last November, Chinese leaders encouraged circulation of land use rights on the open market, nurturing of diversified agricultural business models and new players in agriculture, on the basis of concentrated, professional and organized use of rural lands.
Currently, farm leasing among villagers is the most popular form of rural land transfer, but the proportion of land transfers to rural cooperatives and local enterprises has been growing.
In China, urban land is owned by the state and rural land is normally under collective ownership. While gradual reforms since the 1980s saw the trading of urban land evolve into a vigorous property market, land in the countryside has remained largely static as farmers mostly have rights to use, but cannot directly trade or mortgage them.
"In most regions, the time is actually already ripe for farmers to transfer their land use rights. President Xi Jinping once said that the work will mark another major innovation in rural reforms," Han said.
However, there are challenges in carrying out the reform, in terms of how to protect farmers' land rights, enhance management of land transfer and offer support to new farmers.
For instance, some locales are forcing land transfers against farmers' will, which violates their rights, while some companies are renting transferred lands over long periods but their businesses are not related to agriculture, Han said.
The minister explained that the reform scheme strictly prohibits leasers of transferred lands from non-agricultural purposes.
To promote the gradual transfer of rural land use rights while preventing potential risks to farmers' interests, the first step would be the registration and confirmation of farmers' contracted lands by keeping clear registration records, issuing land rights certificates to them, and improving the terms of land-related contracts.
This will ensure farmers' proprietary and use rights over the contracted lands as well as their rights to benefit from land income. Meanwhile, the measure will provide evidence in solving contract disputes and deciding on compensation in case of land requisition, Han said.
He added that the country will promote the registration scheme nationwide in 2015. Chinese central authorities also announced late last year that the registration work will be completed in five years.
The minister said that the process of land transfer will evolve based on consultation.
"We cannot unilaterally pursue the speed of transfers for large-scale agriculture. The process will be pushed forward step by step based on the situations of different regions. How far it is promoted will also depend on the advancement of technologies and improvement to production methods."