UPDATE 1-China corn imports could reach 20-30 million tonnes -govt researcher
* Corn self-sufficiency rate of 80 pct would be acceptable-researcher
* Imports of 30 mln T would be more than four times current volume
* China corn demand surging as meat consumption rises
(Add comments from researcher, context)
BEIJING, Sept 5 (Reuters) - China could import 20-30 million tonnes of corn a year to cover growing supply shortages, a researcher with a government think tank said on Thursday, as much as four times current levels.
This would be around a quarter of globally traded corn and up to twice as much as number one importer Japan buys, a boon to exporters like the United States, Ukraine and Argentina.
While Xu Xiaoqing, the head of the rural department at the State Council's Development and Research Centre, didn't give a timeframe, his comments to a conference are another sign that China is relaxing its policy of being self sufficient in the feed grain.
The think tank, an agency of the country's cabinet, doesn't decide policy but does directly advise and issue policy recommendations to Chinese leaders.
"For corn, we can maintain basic self-sufficiency and whenever there is a shortfall, we could import - there would be no problem importing 20-30 million tonnes," said Xu.
"But we should keep self-sufficient in staple grains of wheat and rice."
Imports are expected to rise to 7 million tonnes in 2013/14, 3.3 percent of China's total domestic output of 211 million tonnes.
Xu's comments reflect a wider debate in government about the country's food security goals in the light of soaring demand, rapid urbanisation, declining farmland and a shortage of agricultural labour.
Agriculture minister Han Changfu on Sunday told state media that corn imports would have to rise gradually in order to meet feed demand, reversing his 2012 vow that China would not allow itself to become dependent on foreign supplies.
China could tweak its grain security strategy by allowing its corn self-sufficiency rate to fall to around 80 percent, Xu said.
China has long vowed to maintain a 95-percent rate of self-sufficiency in major staples, but imports of rice and corn have been steadily rising, and analysts also expect the country to start sourcing large quantities of meat from overseas.
Xu said China's demand for beef has risen more than twice as quickly as domestic production in recent years, driving up prices. He said meat consumption would continue to rise as China urbanises, and imports could be increased.
(Reporting by Niu Shuping and David Stanway; Editing by Michael Urquhart)