Tue, Nov 26, 2002 - Page 10 News List

Farm sector feels market changes after WTO entry

AGRICULTURE An aging farm population coupled with market liberalization is beginning to take a toll on the neglected sector

By Kevin Chen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Taiwan needs to quickly upgrade its agricultural sector to stay competitive, amid a graying farming population and increasing foreign competition as a member of WTO, pundits said yesterday.

"Farmers need to adjust their production and management, especially at a time when Taiwan is facing cheap foreign imports after WTO entry," said Huang Tsung-chi (黃琮琪), an agricultural economy professor at National Chungshing University.

Examples would include shifting to specialty crops with higher yields and better market value such as orchids, or developing agriculture-tourism as another alternative to improve incomes, Huang said.

"Several farm households in northern Taiwan have successfully transformed themselves into recreational businesses, such as strawberry farms in Tahu, Miaoli County, and orange farms in Shihlin area of Taipei," Huang said. "Orchid plantations, meanwhile, have already become a profit-making business for some farmers in recent years."

Indeed the local cultivation of two species of orchids -- the phalaenopsis and the dendrobium -- for instance, has garnered handsome returns for the nation. Taiwanese growers of the varieties have received positive reactions in Japanese, European, Northern American and Chinese markets, he said.

Yet in central and southern Taiwan, farmers -- still steadfast in traditional farming practices -- have suffered from their inability to adapt to change.

Following WTO entry, prices on more than 200 different vegetables and fruits have dropped by 20 percent to 50 percent in the past few months.

"Rice farmers and growers of tropical fruits such as mangoes and bananas have faced ever-increasing foreign competition," said Yan Jian-sian (顏建賢), secretary-general of Taiwan Agro-Fighters United (TAFU), an organization composed of grassroots fishermen and farmers' associations.

He attributed the decline in prices to Taiwan's small farms which are too vulnerable to meet the challenges of a more open market.

Yan, one of the leaders that orchestrated the demonstration of some 120,000 farmers and fishermen in Taipei on Saturday, said with proper organization and effective marketing, the agricultural sector should be able to survive the influx of foreign competition, and further expand into overseas markets.

The Saturday demonstration, the largest-ever in Taiwan's history by farmers and fishermen, was aimed to protest against the government's financial reforms on grassroots credit cooperatives.

Opponents of the reforms said the measures would make it hard for them to borrow as credit units turn over about 62 percent of their profits for grassroots associations' daily operations.

"We support financial reform, but the government has failed to respect our opinions regarding agricultural development," Yan said.

The organization demanded the government allocate a total of NT$250 billion in funds for the development of agriculture and possible damages from imported agricultural products and set up the national agricultural bank, according to Yan.

Nevertheless, Taiwan's agriculture sector has long been ignored by the government, said Cheng Wen-chi (鄭文吉), an assistant researcher at an agricultural improvement center in Kaohsiung, under the Council of Agriculture.

"Politicians are constantly in political struggles. They've spared no effort to help solve the real [agricultural] problems," Cheng said.

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