The problem of plant seed outflows has come into the spotlight once again following China's copying of Taiwan's Black Pearl strain of wax apples. So far, no consensus has been reached on how to deal with this problem.
Apart from Taiwan's geographic environment, it is our variety improvement and technological innovation that have contributed to the excellent quality of our agricultural products. It is interesting to note that Taiwan's agricultural products -- just like the human species -- make up an immigrant society. About 95 percent of local agricultural products have come from abroad, including paddy rice, mangoes, yams and wax apples. Since numerous varieties have already been improved through the knowledge of the Taiwanese people, it is absolutely necessary that their intellectual property rights be protected.
In addition to plant variety and technology, cost is also a key factor to agricultural competitiveness. Since land and labor costs in Taiwan are high, some farmers have chosen to relocate overseas. In the midst of the recent wave of China-bound investment, there are even examples of people with official status taking seed technology across the Taiwan Strait as part of their investment.
This outflow of seeds and technology may damage Taiwan in two ways. First, it may lead to China competing with Taiwan for export markets, and second, Chinese products could be imported and sold on Taiwan's domestic market. To resolve these issues, the government passed the Plant Variety and Plant Seed Act (植物品種及種苗法) in 2004, effectively remedying these problems through intellectual property protection. However, the law has limitations, as it does not allow the application for patent rights on old plant varieties that previously could not be protected.
Even if we implement the most stringent legal requirements, today's technological advancements means that it would be difficult to stop anyone who wants to illegally take seeds out of the country. This means that for advanced nations that follow the rule of law, the key issue is not seed theft, but rather the ability to continue to further develop plant varieties and the related technology and provide protection of these intellectual property rights. The greatest threat to the nation's agricultural sector is the growing crisis in our deteriorating traditional plant breeding skills.
Apart from orchid breeding technology, most plant breeders work in official institutions and primarily in agencies experimenting with the improvement of agricultural products. Most have worked quietly and hard to make a contribution to Taiwan's agricultural miracle without seeking fame. With the rapid progress of gene technology, policies tend to emphasize cutting-edge technology without being able to also maintain traditional agricultural research skills.
This has resulted in a loss of talent and an inability to attract new blood. This means that the ability of existing plant breeders to create new strains is weakened because of extra additional workloads such as providing assistance and information to farmers. If this situation persists for long and the introduction of new and better strains slows, the consequence would be to damage the agricultural sector even more than the current problem of seed outflows.
In addition to the issue of seed outflows, technology outflow is also a concern. The government has an obligation to place appropriate restrictions on civil servants, rather than standing idly by. Agricultural academic groups should take a square look at members providing China with technical assistance, provide solutions for discussion and clarify the issues concerning the relationship between cross-strait academic exchanges and technology transfers to China.
Warren Kuo is a professor in the Department of Agronomy at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Eddy Chang and Lin Ya-ti
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