As the global population continues to increase and the demand for resources continues to rise, competition for resources between nation states is quickly becoming the determining factor for a nation’s survival.
Over the past two decades, questions of national security have expanded from purely military to encompass areas such as food and energy security.
In this context, food security does not mean food safety; likewise water resource security does not refer to clean drinking water, and when one talks of energy safety, this does not mean nuclear energy. Instead, the issue of security in these areas refers to security of supply.
Nation states can no longer afford to limit their strategic security considerations to purely military concerns as they have done in the past — focusing on sophisticated military hardware or building up well-trained and loyal military forces.
Instead, governments must now also consider how to guarantee the continued and stable supply of food, water and energy for their citizens.
For a long time, Taiwanese politicians of all stripes have talked of “supercharging the economy.” Yet rather than underpinning this policy with a food, water or energy security strategy, they have blindly pursued the development of a so-called high-tech economy and promoted land development.
During the development of Taiwan’s four main high-tech manufacturing industries — the DRAM, flat panel, LED and solar power industries — food, energy and water security were often neglected or even sacrificed.
Time marches on and now these high-tech industries have now become capital-intensive manufacturing operations that, in today’s world, are no longer considered to be “high-tech.”
As Taiwan ponders how it can transform its tech sector to be ready for the future, a good starting point would be to stop equating “supercharging the economy” with prioritizing the four big high-tech industries. Instead, food, water, energy and other security issues should be at the forefront of considerations.
In recent years the governments of many Western countries have prioritized policy considerations around these security issues, which no doubt contributed to the dramatic fluctuations in the prices of food, oil and other raw materials witnessed in 2007 and 2008.
Although nearly 10 years have passed since then, Taiwanese policymakers have not forgotten that CPC Corp, Taiwan was forced to cooperate with the then-government’s long-term policy of energy price freezes and suffered losses approaching NT$50 billion (US$1.7 billion). Additionally, at the time officials were forced to exhaust a great deal of time and energy to stabilize the nation’s food supply.
However, when focusing on the economic cycle and other human-caused factors, it can be all too easy to overlook natural factors that might affect resource security.
Last year, NASA said that “coronal holes” — dark, cooler regions on the sun’s surface — are appearing with increasing frequency, which indicates reduced energy and gas levels.
Indian and Russian scientists who specialize in the study of sunspots are becoming increasingly concerned that the sun may be entering a “hibernation period,” which might mean that the Earth will enter a mini ice age as soon as the end of 2019.
It is not difficult to imagine that if we were to enter a mini ice age, food and oil needs would increase dramatically.
Even if Taiwan were willing to spend large sums of money, it is still by no means certain that a future government would be able to guarantee a sufficient and stable supply of key resources.
However, if we take a step back and suppose that this is alarmist talk and a mini ice age never materializes, the nation’s food self-sufficiency ratio is already much lower than European or US standards.
Furthermore, if the tension continues to rise at military flash points in East Asia and in the South China Sea, it is highly likely that this could cause a food security shock in the region, which would affect Taiwan. If food imports were blockaded by a foreign aggressor, how would the government respond?
Additionally, if global warming continues, food production might become unstable. Is Taiwan in a position to withstand these major threats?
Climate change is already posing a serious threat to water resources. In recent years, Taiwan has faced increasingly severe and increasingly frequent water shortages. These shortages have affected farming and food supply, and in times of water scarcity it is always agriculture that is sacrificed to preserve water.
As an island nation, the government’s high-level strategic thinking should start from the premise that Taiwan must develop in such a way as to ensure its continued survival. The government should prioritize thinking around national security issues in the following order: national defense, food, water, then energy.
In a break with policymaking of the past, the government’s production of domestic defense equipment and the items in the Forward-looking Infrastructure Development Program do address some of the concerns.
However, the issue of food security has once again been overlooked by officials. This will undoubtedly leave many concerned that if the construction of new railways and other basic infrastructure continues to eat up agricultural land, while the growth of solar energy is achieved by taking up arable land, then food security will inevitably become severely compromised.
For some time now, land has been developed in a chaotic fashion by speculators for profit. Meanwhile, local governments have not hesitated to destroy agricultural land and to gain political kudos by building unneeded airports that lie idle. Consequently, arable land has been gradually decreasing over the years.
Officials have also failed to deal with the effects on the farming industry following Taiwan’s entry into the WTO, generally choosing to burn through money by providing subsidies for land left fallow.
Meanwhile, farmers’ associations and wholesalers, under the control of local forces, have exploited farmers, which has reduced the desire of many to continue working in the industry and made it all the more difficult to attract a new generation of younger farmers.
The farming industry is vital to food security. This creates problems, of varying degrees of severity, for Taiwan’s technology and farming industries, but it is also a strategic problem and, above all, it is an issue of survival.
Outdated thinking must be reversed. Reducing the threat from food insecurity must be properly addressed by those in the government responsible for formulating the Forward-looking Infrastructure Development Program with a set of medium and long-term goals and countermeasures.
Otherwise, when disaster strikes, officials will be wholly unprepared to respond and the pubic will be left to suffer the consequences of their inaction.
Leung Man-to is a political science professor at National Cheng Kung University.
Translated by Edward Jones
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