All parties campaigning in the latest presidential and legislative elections tried to win farmers’ votes, but they focused on short-term issues, such as imbalances in the production and sale of fruit and vegetables and subsidies for elderly farmers. The various parties avoided issues related to the sustainable development of Taiwan’s agriculture, such as policies on farmland and cross-strait agricultural exchanges.
Now that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has been re-elected, he should boldly promote reforms and stop allowing farmland policy problems to consume Taiwan’s environment and compromise its food security.
In 2000, amendments were made to the Agricultural Development Act (農業發展條例) that loosened restrictions on the subdivision of farmland and relaxed conditions for building farmhouses. These changes opened a Pandora’s box and caused large amounts of prime farmland to be lost.
During the televised debates between the presidential candidates, People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) said that, given the current rate at which land is being carved up, Yilan County could be left with no complete parcels of arable land within five years and northern Taiwan could face the same fate within 10 years. Soong’s remarks were not just scaremongering, and we need to face up to the issue he raised.
Statistics show that over the past decade Taiwan has lost arable land equivalent in area to about 1,770 Da-an Forest Parks. Of this land, an area up to 15 times the size of Taipei City’s Xinyi District (信義) has been used to build residential houses and farmhouses. This loss of farmland has severely damaged Taiwan’s food production base.
The problems resulting from this trend were brought to light one by one during the election campaign. Taiwan is only 32 percent self-sufficient in food, considerably lower than Japan’s 40 percent and much lower than the US’ 120 percent and France’s 200 percent. With food shortages posing a threat around the globe, Taiwan’s low food self-sufficiency rate is extremely worrying.
During a national conference on food safety held last year, Ma stated that he hoped to increase Taiwan’s food self-sufficiency rate to 40 percent by 2020. While this would only be an increase of 8 percentage points, it will be very difficult to achieve because Taiwan has problems with both oversupply and undersupply of certain foods, coupled with structural problems that bring down the overall food self-sufficiency rate.
If the nation wants to become more self-sufficient in food, it must start by maintaining the extent of existing prime farmland, reviving fallow paddy fields and increasing overseas demand.
Amending the Agricultural Development Act and the Regulations Governing Agricultural Dwelling Houses (農業用地興建農舍辦法) are important steps to be taken in maintaining our farmlands.
According to current laws, land used to build everything from luxury mansions to “dog cage” farmhouses is still considered to be farmland, and this has led to a continual increase in the number of people registering as farmers. As a result, our farmlands have been quietly disappearing. This trend is affecting both the quantity and quality of Taiwan’s agricultural produce.
If this policy is not changed, the safe and pesticide-free agriculture that the Council of Agriculture is pushing for will be nothing more than an empty slogan.