Sun, Dec 18, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Will good come of the fruit war?

By Lee Wu-chung 李武忠

In an attempt to highlight how President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) policies have failed farmers, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) recently published an election campaign flyer showing fruits that have seen a glut in recent months. The flyer, designed in a “calendar” format, implied that Ma’s policies had resulted in farmers not even being able to cover their production costs.

The DPP was taken by surprise when their fruity flyer sparked the “war of the persimmons.” The war was over a picture that showed persimmons priced at NT$2 per jin (600g), but the persimmons in the picture were of a different — and higher- priced — variety than the DPP had intended.

With national and local elections less than a month away, it is only natural that the rival pan-blue and pan-green political camps will engage in mutual attack and defense tactics. What the public would like to know, however, is whether, after politicians and the media have devoted so many words and so much energy to the issue, anything will be done to resolve the demand and supply imbalance of farm produce or to save farmers from being exploited by middlemen.

A lack of balance between supply and demand is by no means exclusive to persimmons. Memories of recent gluts of bananas, papayas, pomelos, various vegetables and other produce are still fresh in people’s minds. Whenever elections draw close, candidates are always vying to say how much they care about the supply-and-demand issue, but once they are over, agricultural issues simply fade out of sight.

This was what happened during the eight years the DPP was in power and during the many years in which the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has been in office. Elected politicians never persist in trying to solve the problem. As a result, the mismatch of supply and demand is a nightmare that never stops haunting farmers.

There are many reasons for the consistent supply and demand imbalance in Taiwan, but the crux of the matter is that information about the production and sales of farm produce is not equally available to all who may need it. Farmers are generally poorly informed compared to wholesalers, who have ready access to information about market supply, demand and prices. This puts farmers at a distinct disadvantage in price bargaining. They often get ripped off, but they just have to put up with it.

Take the issue of milkfish farming, which is currently a focus of attention in Taiwan. Milkfish producers have long faced the problem of a poor distribution system. Wholesalers and transporters are able to adjust supply and demand for milkfish, so they decide the price. Most milkfish producers are families who operate on a small scale. They can hardly stand their ground against big wholesalers, so it is difficult for them to make a reasonable profit. This is the main reason why milkfish producers in Greater Tainan’s Syuejia District (學甲) have welcomed the politically motivated agreement signed by China to buy Taiwanese milkfish.

Unfortunately, the media have focused on China’s motives for signing the agreement — even though its conditions are very favorable to Taiwanese producers — and nobody seems to care very much about the difficulties that milkfish farmers have faced for so long.

Worse still, every time there has been a surplus of a product in recent years and it becomes hard to sell, the first thing the government does is turn to China’s huge consumer market. The government relies on China to fix the problem by buying up the product in question, thus providing relief for Taiwanese farmers and fishermen, but what the government has failed to do is confront the root of the problem and take advantage of opportunities to adjust the structure of Taiwanese agriculture.

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