To expedite the relaxation of the ban on US beef imports containing ractopamine residues, the government has recently spent a great deal of taxpayers’ money on advertising that should have been paid for by the companies selling the meat. Officials also ran around trying to sell the idea.
The biggest problem with this is that neither President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) nor the government officials involved seem to be on the public’s side. They seem reluctant to come clean or to communicate in any meaningful way. Instead, they just try to underplay the risks and construct fantastical ideas that ractopamine is not harmful. All they are doing is digging themselves deeper into a hole at the expense of the public’s trust in the government.
Many countries have banned imports of meat with ractopamine residues for the reason that the drug has no medicinal function. These countries are not willing to allow the inclusion of a substance that could potentially constitute a public health hazard if that additive is present for the sole purpose of reducing production costs and maximizing profits. The EU also bans it on animal welfare grounds, as ractopamine is thought to have various side effects, such as causing lameness and increased fatality.
Just as nobody wants to eat food that could harm them, it is repugnant to force animals to absorb toxins — such as ractopamine, antibiotics or hormones — that might be detrimental to their health.
Faced with growing public anger and pressure, the government, officials and certain academics have tried to play the economic intimidation card, repeatedly pointing out that the US beef import issue extends beyond the US-Taiwan Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) — it also impacts a potential US-Taiwan free-trade agreement (FTA) and Taiwan’s membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and therefore Taiwan’s global position.
If that is the case, then any country could just get Taiwan to do whatever it wanted, claiming that a refusal to lift a certain ban would be damaging to bilateral trade negotiations. Any other industries in Taiwan supportive of the government’s move to relax the ban on imports of beef with ractopamine residues should bear in mind that they might be the next to be sacrificed in the interests of the next set of trade negotiations.
If the government does not do its homework when preparing for the TIFA talks with the US, it is going to find it virtually impossible to produce concrete facts and figures to convince the public that accepting US beef imports was worth it, or that sufficient efforts had been made to put efficient damage limitation or compensation measures in place.
Developed agricultural nations, and especially the US, protect their farming industries far beyond the provision of substantial subsidies. Economies of scale mean that many of these agricultural products can be produced at low cost, making them very competitive in foreign markets. In international trade negotiations these advanced nations force other countries to open up their markets to these products, on the pretext of trade liberalization.
Now Taiwanese farmers are feeling they have their backs against the wall. The government should have restructured the industry some time ago in preparation for what it has known for some time, that agriculture in this country is to be seriously and unavoidably hit by the outcome of trade negotiations — including the TPP, the TIFA and FTAs — it will have with other countries.
For example, it could have implemented measures to help uncompetitive farmers move into other lines of work. This would set farmers’ minds at ease and there would be no need for a broad ad hoc emergency fund to compensate businesses who have been hit by cheaper foreign goods.
For those farmers who were both willing and able to stay in the industry, the government should help them increase their competitiveness and remove non-tariff barriers to trade so that domestic farming products can be sold overseas, mitigating the impact of increased trade liberalization. This would require a considerable amount of financial assistance and guidance from the government.
The problem is that morale is very low in the government departments responsible for agriculture, because of both the ractopamine issue and the avian flu outbreak. The situation has been exacerbated by the news, blown out of all proportion, of the actions of a very small minority of domestic swine and duck farmers found to have been using ractopamine: This has been very damaging to the domestic farming industry.
The situation has angered many farmers and has eroded their trust in the government. In particular, the controversy caused by the government’s handling of the avian flu outbreak caused people to question the organizational culture and personnel choices at the most senior levels of the institutions that deal with farming management.
Compare this with the manner of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office deputy director Zheng Lizhong (鄭立中) during his tour of rural southern Taiwan. He was the model of consideration, talking with farmers about their produce, and asking how he could help them market their apples and fish in China, taking an interest in the kind of problems they have encountered.
Farmers were impressed with this and even came up with a friendly nickname for him. On the other hand, Taiwanese government officials over the last few days have seemed bureaucratic and indifferent to the plight of farmers.
This is just the start of it, too. It does not bode well for future cross-strait political and economic negotiations. Ma has won his second term, so the political pressure is off. The governing party has a majority in the legislature, so it no longer feels the need to pander to the public. Unfortunately, the opposition parties are not up to the task of keeping the government in check. However, if the public puts up with it, they will have no one to blame but themselves.
Du Yu is a member of the Chen-Li task force for Agricultural Reform.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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