Fri, Jun 20, 2014 - Page 8 News List

Zones will damage the interests of our farmers

By Lee Wu-chung 李武忠

Agriculture is one of the key issues concerning the proposed free economic pilot zones, and the same issue will come up in relation to future trade agreements — for example the cross-strait agreement on trade in goods, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). An early response is necessary, otherwise fierce protests will break out and rifts will continue to open up in society.

Some farmers in Taiwan are keen to absorb new knowledge and boldly engage in innovation. Their agricultural products are of high quality and often acquire certification. Quality differentiation enables such products to compete with imported agricultural products that are cheap but may be associated with food safety risks, and some are destined for the export market.

Products such as these are not threatened by the competition that trade liberalization would encourage, but they account for only around 20 percent of Taiwan’s total agricultural output.

Most farmers are limited by factors such as scale of production, capital, technology and markets. They are often affected by imbalances between production and sales, causing prices to fall so low that they may not even be able to cover production costs. They cannot compete with mass imports of low-priced goods from overseas, so they are naturally very worried about liberalization.

This is the true picture of Taiwan’s rural areas today. Hastily cutting import tariffs and opening up domestic markets would have a big impact on the majority of farmers, so it is not without reason that farmers and agricultural pressure groups are strongly opposed to such measures.

“Added value in agricultural production” will be of little help if Taiwan’s farming sector has to bear the impact of wave after wave of liberalization. It will be necessary to thoroughly assist farmers in upgrading and making whatever adaptions are needed.

Agricultural policy reform must start out from national land planning. This involves drawing red lines concerning farmland and regional distribution, in order to ensure food security.

The farmlands in question should not be rezoned for other purposes without going through a strict review procedure. As for short-term subsidies and compensation, although they are indeed necessary, agricultural transition and technical upgrading are more important still.

Issues such as structural adjustments, enhanced competitiveness, higher farming incomes and stronger labor performance in agriculture all need deep-reaching reviews and improvements. People who are willing to go on working in the farming sector must be helped to upgrade in all areas, whether it is business concepts, production and sales techniques, environmental preservation or food safety. The scale of ordinary-grade farming needs to be reduced, while the scale of high-grade farming should be expanded.

Besides providing assistance in the form of funding, technology, information and so on, staff assignment at government-run experimental and research institutes and agricultural research and extension stations needs to be adjusted, as do the duties assigned to the people who work there. Existing arrangements regarding the acquisition and allocation of intellectual property rights and technology transfer licensing fees need to be reviewed, in an all-out effort to help farmers achieve the goal of upgrading.

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