Last month, the news that a 69-year-old farmer attempted suicide because of the delayed delivery of mechanical reapers drew attention to the plight of farmers and revealed the prevailing sense of gloom in the agricultural sector.
A few days ago, a member of Academia Sinica, Chou Chang-hung (周昌弘), warned that the government’s agricultural policies overwhelmingly rely on subsidies and lack long-term planning and vision, which has not only impeded progress in the sector, but also allowed its labor force and production value fall into a downward spiral.
In the past, agriculture was been the cornerstone of the nation’s economy. Rice and sugar were two major Taiwanese exports. Not only was the banana the emblem of Formosa, agricultural goods comprised more than 90 percent of exports in the 1950s.
However, those days have long since passed and the agricultural sector last year accounted for just 1.72 percent of GDP and less than 5 percent of total employment. As for agricultural trade, not only has Taiwan changed from a food-exporting country to a food-importing country, it also accumulated an agricultural trade deficit last year of US$10.18 billion.
The ratio of Taiwan’s agricultural exports to total exports shrank to 1.6 percent last year and its food self-sufficiency rate (based on calories) dropped to 32.7 percent in 2008, lower than Japan’s 41 percent and South Korea’s 44 percent.
Coupled with the recent debate over beef imports containing the feed additive ractopamine and the Dapu (大埔) farmland controversy, the suicide attempt of a farmer is a heartbreaking wake-up call, indicating that the predicament of Taiwanese agriculture may be attributable to misguided policies and long-term negligence, as Chou said. This deplorable neglect of agriculture not only stems from the faulty premises held by policymakers, but may also derive from their lack of understanding about the complex relationship between people and land.
In essence, the significance of agriculture lies in the following indisputable truth: The survival of human beings relies on the provisions of nature. Agriculture provides the majority of life-supporting goods to a society. From a political perspective, every country’s primary task is to supply its citizens with access to sufficient, healthy and affordable food. This prevents famine and thereby reduces the odds of hungry people rioting and staging a revolt against the government. Hence, one of the foundations on which the legitimacy of modern states are built, is that ability of a government to guarantee the subsistence of the people. Far-sighted political leaders with an interest in their political survival rarely overlook the importance of agriculture since they recognize the pivotal role it plays in maintaining peace and political stability.
However, industrialization and, more recently, globalization have given rise to flawed and specious arguments that play down the importance of agriculture. For example, agriculture is now portrayed as a waning industry, which discourages young people from taking an interest in the sector.
Without the input of new labor, we can hardly expect cutting-edge agricultural technologies, efficient managerial skills and modernized marketing expertise to enhance agricultural productivity on their own. Over the years, the government’s policies have not merely failed to reverse this vicious cycle, but have exacerbated the situation.