Thu, Aug 09, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Government sowing bitter seeds

By Du Yu 杜宇

Recent agricultural policies have scared the life out of Taiwan’s farmers. Following the controversy over US beef imports, a few days ago the Council of Agriculture (COA) notified local government and farmer’s associations that applications for rice planting that are part of the “small landlords and big tenant-farmers” (小地主大佃農) policy would be momentarily suspended, effective immediately. The sudden nature of the announcement has worried and angered farmers.

Officials offered several explanations for the decision, saying that in order to utilize governmental resources, current policy offers only two subsidies — a measure subsidizing the procurement of public stock paddy rice and rent incentives, as well as a measure to increase both the area of land for paddy rice and spending on government rice procurement for public paddy stocks. However, these explanations did not quell farmer anger and if agricultural authorities are unable to carry out immediate and effective crisis management to minimize the harm, opposition from farmers is likely to increase further.

The “small landlords and big tenant-farmers” policy was enacted in May 2009 and forms a major part of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) 2008 campaign promise known as the “i-Taiwan 12 projects” (愛台十 二項建設). First of all, the policy should have been carefully planned and representatives from the industrial, government and academic sectors should have been invited to discuss it thoroughly.

Observers are now wondering why such a sudden change was made to a policy that has been in place for the past three years that left some farmers unsure of what they should do.

The decision leaves many questions about the government’s policy integration unanswered. However, the official explanations have hardly been convincing. Should things like the reasonable use of resources, the two subsidies and the increases in public finance expenditure not be adequately assessed and planned before the policy is put into action? Why have these problems only been discovered after years of implementation?

It is worth noting that the big tenant-farmers participating in the program, who own a total of 90,000 hectares of land, have planted rice instead of other crops on 81 percent on their land. This is a clear deviation from the policy’s targets and goes to show that the year-end reviews and appraisal systems of the various government departments are mere formalities that have little practical meaning. It is clear that there is much room for improvement.

In addition, senior COA officials should earnestly review the past decisionmaking process, along with the mode of operation, in order to identify the problems so that they will not repeat the same mistakes.

New people and policies often lead to policy breaks which can damage continuity in Taiwan’s agricultural practices and renders them ineffective in the long term. In particular, in its pursuit of tangible achievements, the government often relaxes original regulations with the effect that policy results differ greatly from the ones other countries produce.

Examples include how paddy fields that are fallow, in accordance with regulations, are used for other crops, as well as the way safety certification for agricultural products is implemented.

Since Taiwan’s agricultural industry has not been reformed for half a century, the COA says, the council is planning to introduce a variety of agricultural reforms. Some of these reforms include changing subsidies for fallow land, changing who can apply to the “small landlords and big tenant-farmers” program, connecting the registration system for agricultural products to fertilizer subsidies, changing the subsidy for vaccination against foot-and-mouth disease in pigs and the output of the entire agricultural industry chain.

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