For the past couple of weeks, reports about a government plan to lift the ban on US beef imports containing residues of ractopamine, as well as about suspicions of a cover-up of the outbreak of avian influenza, have dominated the news. These have been fed not only by the actions of government officials, but of certain experts, whose words and deeds many have considered extremely suspicious. This has once again brought up the debate over whether politicians and academics are in bed with each other.
Farming has always been quite a conservative and closed area. It is quite difficult to get much information about what is going on in the industry, as many people intent on promoting agricultural reform have discovered. Investigating and reporting on issues concerning the rights of farmers is not easy: Just ask documentary filmmaker Kevin Lee (李惠仁), who had to delve deep into his own pockets to finish his film A Secret That Can’t Be Exposed (不能戳的秘密).
The main reason behind this is farmers, as a group, do not wield much power, and find it difficult to exert any real political influence. Farmers’ groups are rather strapped for cash and to a large extent have to rely on government subsidies. In some cases, the representatives of these groups rely on official support if they want to be elected, and as such, they are even less likely to bite the hand that feeds them. It is therefore almost impossible to find anyone willing to come forward and help fight for farmers’ rights.
Some of the senior figures in the farmers’ groups are also local vote captains working to motivate voters at the grassroots level on behalf of political parties, which sets many farmers at cross-purposes with their own peers and has a destabilizing effect on the group as a whole.
The upshot of this is that some of these groups fail in their role of serving as a bridge for communication between their members and the government, making farmers feel that they have no voice and that the government performs less efficiently than it otherwise would. The fact that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) could say to farmers in the south just prior to the election that they should have voiced their concerns over the falling prices of fruit earlier speaks volumes about how serious this problem is.
In the past, academics were able to remain impartial in all this, giving them an important role in the formation of the nation’s agricultural policy. With the proliferation in the number of universities over the past few years and the limited funds available from the Ministry of Education, many academic institutions have seen a drop in subsidies. Teachers have been obliged to look elsewhere to make up the shortfall — and this also applies to academics specializing in fields related to agriculture.
This actually gives government agencies something they can work with, a bit of room to maneuver. There is the good old carrot-and-stick approach: the ability to withhold research projects or to award large research grants, and various combinations thereof.
Many academics, then, prefer to keep their heads down: Examples of those willing to say what they think are few and far between, and some are, indeed, quite happy to speak up for government policy. In short, they have lost their ability to remonstrate against the government and ill-advised agricultural policies continue unchecked, not only impeding the progress of agricultural reform, but also keeping farmers in a vulnerable position.