China's 1988 grain harvest fell short of government production targets for the fourth straight year, declining by more than nine million tons from last year's total, an official newspaper said Thursday.

The report in the Peasants' Daily, quoting officials of the State Statistics Bureau's agriculture section, was the most authoritative acknowledgement yet of persistent farm problems last year.Production of the staple food for the country's 1.2 billion people was hampered in 1988 by weather calamities, erratic agricultural policy and discontent among farmers. The government has announced a series of measures to improve grain output this year.

Western agricultural analysts say the government appears capable of assuring basic food supplies to avert a famine, but the experts predict scattered food shortages this winter. Fears of shortages and high prices already have set off grain-hoarding in cities.

The Peasants' Daily quoted officials as saying the country's total output of rice and other grain last year was 393.8 million tons, 9.2 million tons below 1987, and more than 16 million tons short of the official target of 410 million tons.

The figures also revised downward the 1987 total by 2 million tons, to 403 million from the previous figure of 405 million tons.

It was the fourth consecutive year in which China failed to meet its grain targets since 1984, when a record 407 million tons was grown. Agriculture Minister He Kang said last week the 1989 target would remain flat at 410 million tons.

The officials said cotton production in 1988 was down 4.3 percent from last year, edible oil production dropped by nearly 16 percent and sesame output fell by 8 percent.

The harvest was hurt last year by spring frost, a summer drought and a heat wave.