Sun, Jan 16, 2000 - Page 8 News List

Wine teaches us all to be green

By Liu Kon-Kee and Kao Shuh-Ji

The arrival of the year 2000 means a new, exciting era, and wine and liquor have been an indispensable part of millennium feasts. In recent years, red wine has replaced brandy as the favorite choice at parties in Taiwan. Its gentle and fruity flavor is a strong contrast to brandy's strong and fragrant taste. The difference is primarily the result of wine-making process: wine is fermented while brandy needs to be distilled. The level of alcohol in red wine is far lower than that found in brandy.

A certain distinguished microbiology professor always asks his students on the first day of classes, "Why is it that the alcohol level of red wine rarely exceeds 15 percent?" The answer is simple: the yeast used for fermentation turns grape juice into alcohol, and since alcohol kills bacteria, the yeast is destroyed once the level of alcohol reaches a certain level. In other words, the thriving of yeast eventually leads to its own destruction. The question confronting us is whether Taiwan is facing a similar destiny.

The rise and fall of civilizations is nothing new in human history. Clearly the reasons for this are many and more complicated than the process of winemaking. Recent scholarship has suggested that environmental deterioration is quite possibly the main cause of the decline of some civilizations. The most famous example is the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and the Euphrates in the Middle East, where soil salination is seen as a chief culprit. Because that region's development and prosperity demanded agricultural output on a large scale, irrigation became a necessity in that dry climate. This caused water to evaporate and left salt in the soil. Over a prolonged period of time, the process of irrigation and soil salination deprived the soil of its fertility, making that civilization's demise inevitable.

Even though soil salination is not a serious problem in rainy Taiwan, we do face our own weaknesses. Taiwan's topography is such that with high mountains and fast-moving rivers, most people may think of soil erosion and landslides are "normal" natural phenomena. However, as our researches in the Lanyang River (蘭陽溪) watershed show, Taiwan loses soil at the rate of half a centimeter per year -- a startling figure, given that it is about 100 times the average worldwide.

An even more troubling fact is that past records tell us the soil erosion level has not always been this high in Taiwan. Fifty years ago the erosion rate was only one-fifth of the one in recent years. The erosion rate peaked twice: the first time was between 1960 and 1964, coinciding with the construction of the Central Cross-Island Highway; and it happened again between 1980 and 1982, following the passage of legislation which legalized development on mountain slopes. Today, Taiwan tops the world in soil erosion rate.

Man's survival depends on a land that can nurture and support us. Soil erosion is hardly the only problem facing Taiwan. If calculated proportionally, we lead the world in terms of the pressure we impose on our land with development, pollution and other types of destructive activities. The situation is worsened by natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons, making Taiwan's environment one of the most fragile on Earth. Little surprise then that we face a very strong threat from the environment itself, as it fights back for its own survival.

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