BEIJING, July 27 (Xinhua) -- After reaping his wheat field this summer, Ma Yuxi is not rushing back to China's coastal cities to work odd jobs as he has in other years.
Instead, the farmer and migrant worker in his forties is thinking of saying good-bye to his "double life" and renting more land to devote himself to farming full time. For Ma, opportunities from his upgraded cropland outweigh those in cities.
"Despite droughts, I have had a bumper harvest the past two years and my income was also up," he said.
Ma's good luck can be attributed to a program started in 2009 to create "high-standard arable land" in central China's Henan Province, which produces one-tenth of the country's total grain output.
Improved irrigation and drainage, reinforced paths around fields, and shelter trees have led to improved grain yields and better resistance to natural disasters for around 26 million mu (1.7 million hectares) of cropland in the province.
Average grain yields increased by 30 percent, with the wheat output per mu reaching 585.2 kilograms in Hebi in the north of the province, data from local authorities showed.
"Latest yield figures have proved the importance of upgraded land in improving agriculture and tapping the land's potential," said Pang Xuemeng, head of the agriculture development office under the provincial government.
The local government plans to complete the upgrade of 60 million mu of arable land by the end of 2020.
The Henan program is just part of the country's greater ambitions. The central government released a guideline in June to create 800 million mu of "high-standard arable land" throughout the country by 2020. The program will be top priority for China's major grain-producing provinces, including Henan, Anhui, Shandong and Heilongjiang, during the next few years.
The program, if completed successfully, will likely reverse the fact that grain output has remained low for two-thirds of China's arable land and only slightly more than half the land is well irrigated.
"The program means a lot to ensure state food security," said He Caiwen, senior official from the Ministry of Agriculture. He added that agriculture in China is still plagued by limited water and land resources as well as an aging rural labor force.
Improving agricultural infrastructure and land productivity is urgently needed to guarantee stable food supply for China's growing population, He said.
China has prided itself on feeding over 20 percent of the world's population on 10 percent of its arable land despite water scarcity, scattered fertile land, and lagging facilities.
However, this pride has been challenged by China's rising grain imports in recent years. Grain import figures for 2013, although not released yet, are estimated at over 90 million tonnes, up substantially from 2012.
Although dwarfed by China's 2013 grain output of over 600 million tonnes, the estimate raised alarm about the country's food self-sufficiency.
Li Guoxiang, researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China should be alert as the country cannot rely on international markets for its food security.
Ye Xingqing, head of the agricultural economy department of the Development Research Center under the State Council, said the sustainability of China's grain production faces enormous challenges, such as increasing pressures from resources and rising costs.
The Chinese central government has started to take action on the issue. In addition to upgrading arable land, a series of other policies have been carried out to ensure food supply.
The Chinese government has asked local authorities to make sure arable land is not illegally occupied, and the country's arable land should total no less than 1.8 billion mu. Technological innovation is encouraged to improve yields, and advanced equipment has been used this year to reduce grain losses during storage, transportation and processing.
China has also vowed to increase financial aid to farmers and promote new models of agriculture.
The country's grain output this summer increased 3.6 percent year on year to 136.6 million tonnes, according to the latest data from the National Bureau of Statistics.