The case of the "rice bomber" Yang Ju-men (楊儒門) has caused controversy over the legal repercussions of his actions and the welfare of farmers. Given that farmers currently are a disadvantaged minority with very low incomes, the Council of Agriculture (COA) should reassess their welfare and protect their rights.
The government already earmarks about NT$100 billion annually in agricultural subsidies. Why has this funding failed to resolve their plight?
The root of the problem is that the government's attitude, to put it metaphorically, is to give the farmers fish rather than teaching them to fish for themselves, especially for big fish.
An all-out effort to develop agricultural technology is the best way to catch big fish. The government should come up with practical measures to support, reward and encourage research and development in agricultural sciences. New technology will allow farmers to add value to their products, earn higher profits and so resolve problems in the agricultural sector. Taking it a step further, we can learn from the experience of the Netherlands by making agricultural production a backbone of the economy.
Taiwan is densely populated and the cost of labor is relatively high. The limited land available for cultivation also makes it impossible to support the traditional agricultural sector. For sustainable development, the agricultural, livestock husbandry and fishing industries all require the use of high technology to implement large-scale reform. Taiwan should become an R&D base for agricultural technology with control over patents.
Technology can also be exported; a majority of planting and production could be performed overseas, while bringing high returns home. Taiwan has a sophisticated standard of technology and the standards of research in the agricultural sector is also quite high. The level of research in this sector is one of the very few biological fields here to have risen above international standards.
Agriculture is labor-intensive and Taiwan will find it hard to sustain this sector now that it has entered the WTO. Nevertheless, a nation should never give up production abilities, especially one facing the possibility of war, a blockade or obstruction in international commerce. If Taiwan can transform its agricultural sector to cater to industrial and medical needs through high tech or genetic engineering, the added value would be considerable.
To be able to develop agricultural technology successfully, there are at least two things to keep in mind.
First, government funding must be sufficient. Currently, the government has limited funding for agricultural R&D, with only enough to sustain the operations of agricultural agencies. As to funding high-tech and high-added-value research in universities and institutions, government resources are extremely limited. Thus, greatly increasing funding is a must; otherwise, the goal of promoting farmers' production value cannot be achieved.
Second, the government should not immediately lock into a fixed program. It should pay attention to research institutions and development of new, potentially world-leading technologies. In this way, inventors will be able to retain intellectual property rights and national development will remain within the control of the government. This is an area subject to change, however; it is difficult to plan in advance.