"The impact of the snow disaster in southern China on winter crop production is extremely serious," he said on Thursday.
 
"The impact on fresh vegetables and on fruit in some places has been catastrophic."

Chen said the overall effect on agriculture depended on how long the storms lasted and whether they moved into northern China, which produces most of the country's wheat and oil crops.

Transport delays have caused food
and coal shortages [GALLO/GETTY]
Transport delays have already driven up vegetable prices nationwide, while wholesalers in Beijing said that only about 20 per cent of the usual supplies were reaching the city.

The warning comes amid reports of food shortages in parts of the country affected by the harsh weather, and fears that rising food prices could trigger public unrest.

The economic costs of the winter weather, already estimated at several billion dollars, have been put under further pressure by a critical shortage of coal reaching the country's power stations.

The shortages have also driven up the cost of coal, leading several generators to shut down power plants rather than make a loss on electricity supplies.

Analysts say the extreme weather and a global downturn posed a greater challenge to the Chinese economy than expected, threatening the country with a spike in inflation just as growth shows signs of slowing.

Although China had already introduced a raft of price controls to prevent overheating as it entered 2008, the long-term fallout from its winter woes still remains to be seen.

Impact

The Lunar New Year holiday plans of millions
of travellers have been ruined [GALLO/GETTY]
Andrew Browne, a China analyst based in Beijing, told Al Jazeera that many economists have been comparing the impact on the economy to the outbreak of the deadly SARS virus in 2003.

He said there was speculation that the fallout from the winter storms may contribute to a slowing of growth rates from last year's sizzling level of 11.4 per cent to closer to nine per cent – something that could increase worries for China's government.

"Nine per cent may sound like a lot, but it's only just enough to absorb the millions of workers coming into the economy each year," Browne said.

Meanwhile, with officials eager to be seen in control of the crisis, the government stepped up an intense media campaign, apologising to stranded travellers unable to travel for Lunar New Year holidays.

National television has been showing live updates on relief efforts accompanied by uplifting song and stories of the hardships.

Heroism

Reports have also stressed the heroism of railway workers, police and officials struggling to clear the snows, as well as six electricity workers who died while repairing power lines.

"After 30 years of reform and opening up, we've accumulated a strong material foundation and as long as we're vigorously organised, we will be fully able to vanquish the current hardship," Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, told officials in Guangzhou.

The government has ordered half a million army troops and extra units of police to clear roads and help provide emergency supplies to millions of stranded travellers, declaring an "all out war" on the crisis.

The fierce weather comes at the busiest travel period of the year in China, with hundreds of millions of travellers heading home for Lunar New Year celebrations.

For many of China's millions of migrant workers the annual holiday is the only time of the year that they get to see their families.

In an effort to prevent dismay from turning into unrest, the government has said it will introduce measures prioritising food and coal shipments to affected areas by waiving all road tolls, fees and restrictions.