The Executive Yuan’s Council of Agriculture has warned about excessive cabbage planting, indicating that the crop has exceeded the alarming surplus of late August and could suffer another drastic price fall at harvest.
This is typical of the agricultural cycle in Taiwan: Sometimes crops are sold at high prices; other times, overproduction means they are left abandoned in the fields. Year after year, the cycle repeats, not only with cabbage, but also with fruit like bananas, pineapples and guava.
Asked how this cycle could be broken, Taiwan External Trade Development Council chairman James Huang (黃志芳), in an exclusive online interview with the Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper), proposed selling harvests as luxury goods, citing the example of seeing two mangoes sold at the equivalent of NT$8,000 in a Tokyo supermarket.
Taiwan’s red-skinned Irwin mango varietal, the “Black King Kong” wax apple and jujubes can also be marketed internationally to enhance their added value, which would upgrade the nation’s agriculture for high-end markets.
There are ways that the agricultural sector can be improved, including better coordination between production and marketing, balancing supply and demand, enhancing added value and developing high-end agriculture. The key is creative thinking.
For instance, a man in Taoyuan’s Fusing District (復興) uses honey peaches deemed too unsightly to be put on sale to brew beer.
Then there is the Cardinal Tien Junior College of Healthcare and Management’s Yilan campus and National Ilan University. According to a Liberty Times report on Sept. 16, the two institutions collaborate using green onion roots, often discarded as useless for culinary purposes, to develop moisturizing masks, shampoo and other products. Ten kilograms of green onion roots can be made into 10,000 masks, which are sold for NT$50 each. This is turning waste into gold.
These are examples of agricultural innovation. By making the most of waste, crops can be utilized in their entirety.
Most people usually only use a small part of a vegetable. By weight, only 10 percent of the original harvest is consumed, which means that 90 percent is wasted. Taiwanese farmers use leftover plant stalks, withered leaves, soy pulp and soybean meal to feed livestock, while dry sugarcane leaves and straw are burned to make fertilizer.
Apart from a high levels of waste in crops, the nation’s agriculture also faces pressure from competition. Given that Taiwan is a small, densely populated country, the price of agricultural land is relatively high and the cultivated area is smaller, which makes mass production difficult and the cost far higher than elsewhere. As a result, Taiwan’s agricultural products are almost non-competitive. Only a small number of fruit and other harvests are regularly exported.
Research has found that agricultural waste contains as many — and sometimes more — nutrients than what people consume. For instance, banana peel is three times more nutritious than the pulp, as the peel contains an abundance of vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein and polyphenols that can help with weight loss. Other examples include lotus seed, which is a popular delicacy often seen in banquets. The bitter germ of the seed is often removed after harvest, but it is a traditional Chinese medicinal herb that can help reduce blood pressure and maintain proper heart and brain function. Water chestnuts are delicacies harvested in the fall, and they are commonly deshelled before being sold. Yet, the shell contains so many nutrients that traditional Chinese medicine practitioners suggest boiling it to make broth. Many other fruit peels, such as pomelo, lemon, tangerine and pineapple, contain nutrients, but for years they have been thrown away, as they are regarded as having an undesirable taste, unappealing appearance and pose difficulties in extracting nutrition. This is a waste of nature’s gifts.
The innovation of making masks with green onion roots in Yilan is an accomplishment demonstrating a proactive approach to finding new possibilities for the nation’s agriculture. Similar efforts should also be made to turn useless items into something of value by applying biotechnological methods to extract nutrients from fruit peel, seed germ and shells. In this respect, sesamin is a good model to learn from. Sesamin is a lignan extract from sesame seeds and makes up less than 1 percent of a single seed.
However, it is regarded as a valuable antioxidant and sold at a high prices internationally. The key is to find an effective way to extract sesamin. Japan boasts the most advanced research and application, and Taiwan should learn from it to enhance the added value of its agricultural products.
The Netherlands is generally acknowledged as a model of agricultural development. Despite being just slightly larger than Taiwan, the European nation of 17 million people is the second-largest agricultural exporter in the world, behind only the US. The nation is among the world’s top exporters of tomatoes, chili peppers and cucumbers, while its flower businesses — such as tulips — are world-renowned. Being another small, but densely populated country, the Netherlands boasts outstanding agricultural achievements. The key to the Dutch success lies in the application of technologies, continuous innovation, along with agile and pragmatic incorporation of resources from industry, the government and academia.
In the 1970s, the Netherlands found itself uncompetitive in the agricultural sector. At that time, the Dutch government opted not to provide subsidies or protectionism to farmers, but tackled the issue by enhancing agricultural productivity and promoting innovation. Universities, research institutes and multinational food companies joined forces to develop Food Valley in a powerful triangle not unlike the support provided by Stanford University for Silicon Valley’s technological developments. Eventually, the Netherlands became a pivotal location for global agricultural innovation, where academic research is effectively combined with farming practices. The combination of knowledge acquired in universities with real-life practices on farms can be found in the applications of biotechnology or uncrewed aerial vehicles to agriculture, as well as practical farming tasks such as water rationing, pesticide reduction, pest removal and soil improvement.
Universities there are no longer mere ivory towers, but centers for the research and development of innovation in connection with agriculture. This combination of forces helped establish the foundation for the Netherlands, a small western European nation, to become a global agricultural giant.
Agriculture should not be held hostage by weather and climate; technology and its applications are the only solution for the Taiwan’s agriculture to make breakthroughs. A promising future will appear when the nation institutes continuous innovation.
There have been numerous agricultural experimental stations established in Taiwan since the Japanese colonial period. Persistent research and development by those facilities contributed to the much-lauded Taiwanese fruit and orchids. Giving out subsidies is a tried and tested political approach, whereas spending on research and development that combines theory and practice is the fundamental solution to the nation’s predicament.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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