Sat, Aug 06, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Real agricultural reform is needed

By Lee Wu-chung 李武忠

Agriculture has once again been in the news. After battling over bananas and papayas, the pan-blue and pan-green political parties are now focusing debate on increases in subsidies for elderly farmers. The Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) legislative caucus has proposed increasing subsidies for elderly farmers from NT$6,000 to NT$7,000 and have listed this as a priority bill for their next legislative session.

While the ruling party has stated that it needs to consider its finances, it will probably support the bill because of election pressure. It is sad that each time an increase in subsidies is proposed, it seems to coincide with legislative or presidential elections. Many are saying the rise in subsidies is little more than electioneering.

On average, farmers earn an annual income of NT$873,000. Not only is this lower than the national average of NT$1.128 million, but the amount they receive from farming itself doesn’t even account for NT$200,000 of the total. In recent years, farmers have been hit by increasing initial outlay and living costs, all going up at a rate much higher than the increased revenue from farming.

Considering the long-term contribution to food security and the preservation of the environment that farming makes, it is correct and necessary to increase subsidies, when appropriate, for our elderly farmers. However, these subsidies lack a wealth exclusion clause and there are currently many “farmers” driving around in luxury automobiles and living in mansions.

Apart from owning land and sitting around waiting for its designation for use to change so they can sell it off or use it for other things, such people also enjoy benefits like farmer’s insurance, subsidies for elderly farmers, crop subsidies and tax exemptions, and this is not in line with the principle of social justice.

The government should clearly define what constitutes elderly farmer status to identify who is eligible. These subsidies now account for more than 70 percent of total expenditure on agriculture and have been in place for a long time, and so have become a huge financial burden. Farmland utilization rates are low, with large areas of farmland being left idle and neglected. Spending on agricultural infrastructure has been discouraged and there is a lack of funds available for scientific research and development. It is high time something was done about this.

These are not new problems. If politicians were genuinely concerned about the livelihood of elderly farmers, they would have implemented agricultural reforms some time ago, not just in the run-up to an election. As it is, they conveniently come up with these proposals to keep the farmers happy, only to drop them again after the election, and even give out the most important executive positions in the industry as a political pat on the back to others, or simply for the sake of gaining some political capital for themselves.

In an age where politics trumps competence, agricultural policies can change overnight. This not only leaves farmers disoriented, it also makes businesses avoid agriculture, making it impossible to upgrade our agricultural system.

After all, even the best policies need people to implement them to deliver on their mandates. Especially now, with elections just around the corner, the majority of agricultural policy has been aimed at achieving short-term gains. Subsidy increases are constantly being proposed, restrictions on who is eligible for subsidies are being relaxed in an attempt to win over voters and the government has shown that it lacks the courage to carry out reform.

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