Following the Jan. 14 presidential election, the government has had a Cabinet reshuffle to bring in new approaches. Newly appointed Council of Agriculture Minister Chen Bao-ji (陳保基) declared that farming is not a sunset industry and he says he has many ideas about where the nation’s agriculture could go from here. Now farmers are waiting to see whether the sector will really undergo a renewal.
The nation’s farming sector has reached a bottleneck and whether it can get back on the broad track will depend on finding the right policy direction.
There are some issues that call for priority solutions.
The first of these is that farming families’ incomes generally tend to be low, so that they depend on supplementary earnings from non-agricultural activities to make ends meet. The pricing system for farm produce is not based entirely on value or determined purely by supply and demand. Farmers’ interests have always been sacrificed for the sake of national security and a stable life for the public as a whole. In future, farm produce prices should be raised to a reasonable extent through market mechanisms and more relaxed policies, so that agricultural production can generate respectable incomes. That is the only way the difficulties faced by farmers can be resolved.
The next point is that relief measures for losses suffered by farmers should be strengthened. The country lies in a high-risk climate zone to begin with, and now, with the additional threat of climate change, conventional agriculture is likely to be hit by even worse natural disasters and suffer even greater losses as time goes by. The risk posed by natural disasters can be reduced through technical innovations, like solar-powered greenhouse facilities, plant factories and so on, but it also needs to be tackled at the institutional level.
The government’s usual response when farms suffer damage is to provide relief through administrative departments. Although the amount of government relief on offer has recently been increased, it is still not nearly enough to cover the real losses suffered by farmers.
Improving protection for farmers by spreading the risk more widely should, therefore, be made a priority.
The government should set up a natural disaster relief system with agricultural insurance as its main theme and backed up by other means of administrative disaster relief. This would be the best policy for promoting Taiwan’s agricultural development, ensuring that farmers make a steady income and bringing about social justice.
The next item is to change farming subsidies. Agricultural subsidies have two main purposes — to protect farmers’ interests and to ensure food security. Despite much talk of trade liberalization, farm subsidies in the US, EU and Japan are not being cut, but increased.
Many countries used to take measures to support agricultural prices, but now it has become common practice to support incomes instead, irrespective of production. However, the nation is still stuck at the stage of price support policy. As a result, while Taiwan spends as much as NT$70 billion to NT$80 billion (US$2.37 billion to US$2.7 billion) a year on agricultural subsidies, farmers’ incomes are still below the national average.
Clearly, it is time to review and reform existing measures, such as subsidies for leaving fields fallow and the state purchasing of rice at guaranteed prices. Academics here keep calling on the government to abolish guaranteed prices for rice purchases and to apply land subsidies instead, saying that this is the only way for farmers to enjoy real benefits.