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.
For the sake of sustainable agricultural development and food security, government departments should immediately suspend or scrap existing regulations on the building of housing on farmland. Those who purchase and use farmland in ways that violate the regulations should have a farmland occupation tax levied on them and a three-to-five-year house-building ban placed on the farmlands they own. This would give related ministries sufficient time to amend the Agricultural Development Act and prevent drawn-out amendment procedures from allowing the loss of farmland to continue unchecked.
The government should be more proactive in adjusting policies related to the structure of agriculture and the revival of fallow paddy fields. The authorities should also assist and lead small-scale farmers in establishing “farming to order,” encouraging existing farmers and agribusiness to engage in contract production that would allow small-scale farmers to operate as satellite farms for agribusinesses. This would help solve problems of agricultural production and marketing.
There are some kinds of agriculture that require large amounts of capital and high-tech equipment, such as facility agriculture and plant factories that employ things like biotechnology, environmental control and automation to break through normal agricultural constraints of season and space. In such cases, the government should improve the investment environment for agribusinesses and provide them with tax incentives to produce high-end agricultural products.
More important still, the government needs to be more proactive in developing markets for Taiwanese agricultural products in China, and it also needs to improve the structure of agricultural production and upgrade it. Current policies regarding Chinese agricultural products are overly protective, lacking an overall strategy and incapable of maximizing Taiwan’s agricultural advantages.
Despite China and Taiwan having signed the cross-strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), marketing of Taiwan’s agricultural products in China is still at an early stage and a long time is still needed before steady marketing channels and regular groups of consumers can be formed.
The government should take quicker action to overcome marketing and transport bottlenecks affecting Taiwanese agricultural products sold in China, and it should gradually explore and establish systems and modes of cooperation that are more in line with the respective characteristics and interests of Taiwan and China. We should move away from the current purchasing pattern in which China buys up Taiwan’s otherwise unsellable agricultural products, and toward one of more regular direct purchasing. This would allow trade cooperation with China to revive the use of farmland and improve the structure of our agricultural production.
In addition, agricultural departments should not be left out of the ECFA. Permanent mechanisms for mutual aid and consultation should be established to make cross-strait trade in agricultural products more systematic. That will help lay the groundwork for entry into free trade agreements with ASEAN and other countries.
Peng Tso-kwei is a chair professor at Asia University and chairman of the Taiwan Society of Rural Development Planning.
TRANSLATED BY DREW CAMERON
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