Greenpeace recently announced the results of tests for pesticide residues made on a random sampling of 102 pieces of fruit purchased in traditional markets in Taiwan. These results showed that half of the sample — 51 pieces of fruit — tested positive for pesticide residues. Of these, 16 had levels considered excessive, 25 had residues from three to seven different kinds of pesticide, and four had tested positive for excessive amounts of highly toxic chemicals.
Clearly this considerably high fail rate is substantially at odds with the government’s hopes of differentiating Taiwan’s agricultural products from the cheap imports flooding the domestic market, and not very helpful for its attempts to promote locally produced goods against that competition.
Food safety is something that concerns consumers the world over, and involves governments, producers, wholesalers and consumers, all of whom are responsible for maintaining it. Over the past several years, to increase the quality of agricultural produce and consumer confidence, Taiwan’s agricultural authorities have been actively subsidizing and promoting organic foods and the verification of the production cycle of different foods.
However, these efforts have been limited by factors such as poor soil and water quality, water shortages, dustfall pollution and inadequate buffer zones that otherwise ought to prevent inadvertent contamination by synthetic farm chemicals from adjacent fields, as well as finicky and expensive testing and verification procedures, not to mention that not many agricultural products are tested or pass a verification process.
At present, the agriculture industry in Taiwan primarily employs traditional farming methods. Therefore, if the government is to ensure food safety for consumers, it needs to direct its assistance at farmers using traditional farming methods, making sure they are informed about how to use pesticides correctly.
The problem requires the proper approach if we are to address the concerns that exist over the kinds of unwanted residues — agricultural pesticides, heavy metals and antibiotics — that are found on agricultural products being sold on the market, and to rebuild consumer confidence in domestic agricultural goods.
Regrettably, in dealing with the frequent public outcries over domestic agricultural products over the past few years, the authorities have chosen not to look into the shortcomings in the use and management of agricultural pesticides, believing instead that the impractical nature of the laws and regulations governing the supervision of food and drugs — including inconsistent standards on pesticide residues and unclear regulations on their use — is at the root of the problem.
The possibility that similarly lax testing standards will be applied in future to veterinarian products, additives and pesticide residues, further eroding food safety controls, is a real concern.
Certainly, there is a need to review Taiwan’s current standards on the use and residues of veterinary products, additives and agricultural pesticides, which need to be brought up to date, but it needs to be done properly and openly, and not in such a way that it just creates more work for the already overworked authorities.
Given the threat posed by foreign imports in an increasingly open market, Taiwan should use the quality — read safety — of its agricultural products to help them stand out against those produced overseas.