News that former minister of agriculture Paul Sun (孫明賢) has taken up a consulting position with a Chinese government agricultural enterprise caused a furor this week.
In accepting a three-year job at the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture-funded Taiwan Agricultural Entrepreneurship Garden, Sun became the latest in a long line of former officials to spark conflict of interest concerns.
A bigger concern, however, was that Sun’s appointment would lead to valuable domestic agricultural technology and know-how being leaked to farmers in China.
Sun is also the chairman of the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center, an institute partly funded by the government and headquartered in Shanhua (善化), Tainan County, that develops new seed strains and agricultural technology.
It is no secret that China has long coveted access to Taiwan’s advanced agricultural technology, an aim that Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Deputy Chairman Zheng Lizhong (鄭立中) elaborated on during a visit this week to farmers in Tainan.
“China’s government attaches great importance to its agricultural development,” Zheng was quoted as saying in news reports, adding that Tainan County should capitalize on its competitive edge in the high-quality subtropical fruit sector to cooperate with China and “strengthen the division of labor across the Taiwan Strait” — a sentence that roughly translates as “give us your agricultural secrets.”
Academics and politicians have repeatedly warned of the grim future facing Taiwan’s farmers should Chinese farmers gain access to their advanced techniques.
Taiwan’s agriculture sector remains far ahead of its Chinese counterpart and this advantage helps farmers increase their income by promoting export of their high-quality produce to countries such as Japan and Australia.
But once Chinese farmers gain access to this know-how, that competitive advantage will be lost and China’s much larger agricultural sector will be able to take advantage of cheaper labor to flood regional markets with cheaper produce of a similar quality.
This could deliver a lethal blow to many of Taiwan’s small-scale farmers already struggling to cope with increased foreign imports following accession to the WTO.
China has already shown itself to be disrespectful toward intellectual property laws, and there are numerous cases of Taiwanese investors complaining about Chinese partners reproducing their seed strains without paying royalties.
Faced with these questions, Sun defended himself by saying: “We shouldn’t see agricultural technology as sensitive material. Instead, it should be a public asset. China has large stretches of land and good plant diversity, and can be seen as an extension of Taiwan’s farmlands.”
That may be the case for larger, wealthier farmers who can afford to invest in China, but it is small comfort for the thousands of small-scale farmers who eke out a living from small plots of land.
Aiding Taiwan’s allies with agricultural know-how to help them alleviate poverty and malnutrition is one thing, but doing the same with China in the face of its overarching desire to annex Taiwan is tantamount to agricultural ruin.
While Taiwan cannot afford to ignore its giant neighbor, presenting officials like Sun with the opportunity to sacrifice the goose that lays the golden egg in the name of improved relations is unforgivable.
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