Media outlets were recently having a field day with news about the severe drop in the prices of domestically grown bananas, papaya and garlic — the result of an imbalance in supply and demand for these products.
Worried farmers did not know where to look for a solution, so they went to legislators in search of help. The government agencies responsible for agriculture should engage in self-reflection and open up channels for farmers to report their problems and complaints. Senior government officials, including President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), are now trying to divert allegations that agricultural policies have failed by saying that legislators’ remarks that one catty (0.6kg) of bananas sells for NT$2 will only cause prices to slide further. This is not a very clever kind of election manipulation, for our farmers are not stupid. The government obviously underestimates the wisdom of farmers.
When farmers were at their angriest, the Council of Agriculture, under the orders of Ma, tried with amazing efficiency to save its reputation by proposing six major policies to steady the price of agricultural products. This left farmers curious: Why didn’t the government, now almost at the end of its term in office, come up with these policies earlier? Were the government officials in charge of agricultural policy lazy and negligent of their duties? If these policies are only an emergency response, made up of past suggestions by academics and experts and lacking a complete plan and complementary measures, they will fail the test. Farmers will continue to be exploited by middlemen, and supply-and-demand imbalances for agricultural products will continue, making farmers angrier still.
Taiwanese agriculture has always had short-term emergency responses, but never any long-term agricultural policies. There are still no effective mechanisms for stopping the outflow, especially to China, of the core agricultural technologies. Instead, the average farmer has been unable to absorb the transfer of technologies from government-run research institutes who are meant to pass on the results of their research and development. This has slowed down the acquisition among farmers of new technology and further weakened the competitiveness of Taiwanese agriculture. Since agricultural research institutes still receive their funding from the government, they should focus on solving the problems of farmers. To avoid research bias, evaluations of their work should focus on whether they manage to solve these problems within a given time frame and not on how many patents they can crank out or how much in royalties they can earn.
Because of their tendency to report good news and suppress bad news, government officials are in fact doing Ma an injustice. While all the various subsidies make up about 70 percent to 80 percent of the total budget for agriculture, farmers are yet to experience any noticeable improvement to their lives, which shows that many aspects of the subsidies need to be brought in line with international standards so farmers might benefit directly. For example, in places like the US, the EU and Japan, agricultural subsidies are no longer given to meet projected prices, but are instead given as direct income to the producers of agricultural produce. In Taiwan, however, such methods are still at the research stage, with no signs of any changes to existing measures.