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Trading away the nation’s agriculture

Trading away the nation’s agriculture

By Chen Shih-shiung

Taipei Times Friday, Feb 27, 2009, Page 8 
Chinese agriculture has a lot of serious long-term problems. In inland regions, about 900 million poor farmers struggle to get by on an average annual income of less than US$600. One of the sector’s weak points is each farmer only has a small area of land to till — less than half the area available to each farmer in Taiwan. Many Chinese peasants are also uneducated and illiterate. Government fears of grassroots organizations have prevented the formation of farmer’s organizations that could have served as channels for education and training.

Chinese agricultural technology is backward and short on investment. Only the low cost of labor allows the sector to survive economically. Now, because of the knock-on effects of the global financial crisis, large numbers of rural migrant workers have been laid off from their jobs in the cities and are going back to their home villages. Clearly, finding solutions for the countryside is an urgent and difficult task for Beijing .

China ’s proposals for agricultural cooperation with Taiwan may appear on the surface to be a goodwill gesture. The reality, however, is China urgently needs help from Taiwan in the form of funding and know-how. In considering how to respond, the government’s first concern should be the livelihood of Taiwanese farmers and the long-term development of Taiwan ’s agriculture. It needs to consider the repercussions and crises that might ensue from cross-strait exchanges.

The government must also consider Taiwan ’s global position. Countries like Vietnam , Thailand , Malaysia and Indonesia are interested in cooperating with Taiwan in agriculture. It would be unwise to put all our eggs in one basket by favoring a country that has more than 1,000 missiles aimed at us.

Land is literally a fixed asset — it can’t be moved. The market for agricultural produce is limited and demand is not very flexible. Most countries have in place various measures intended to protect farmers’ interests and ensure the long-term development of their agriculture. It is hardly likely that countries would unconditionally offer funding and training to other nations. What is true of other countries is all the more so in the case of China and Taiwan .

Many problems have arisen as a consequence of cross-strait agricultural exchanges. For example, there have been numerous instances of Chinese businesses registering brand names before Taiwanese producers have a chance to do so. More than 90 percent of products marketed in China under famous Taiwanese brand names are counterfeit. Many brands have been targeted, including Gukeng coffee, Puli tea, Chihshang rice, Tung Ting oolong tea, Chuoshui rice and Kinmen gong sugar.

Cheap and inferior Chinese products marketed under Taiwanese brands have damaged the genuine articles’ reputation and undermined their prices in overseas markets. The products affected include flowers such as moth orchids and fruits such as mangoes and wax apples. Chinese moth orchids have grabbed 60 percent of the US market away from Taiwanese ones. In 1990, Taiwan was Japan ’s second-biggest source of agricultural imports. By 2005, China had taken Taiwan ’s place at No. 2, while Taiwan slid to No. 13.

Another concern is the danger of plant and animal diseases entering Taiwan from China . It has already happened in the cases of foot-and-mouth disease, SARS and avian influenza.

Wrong policies could spell the death of Taiwanese agriculture and leave future generations precariously dependent on others for their food and drink. In view of the risks, cross-strait exchanges must be treated with a suitable degree of caution.

Chen Shih-shiung is president of the Association of Taiwan Organic Agriculture Promotion.

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Association of Taiwan Organic Agriculture Promotion

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