It's time to give modern agriculture its due

By Yang Ping-shih 楊平世  / 

Wed, May 10, 2006 - Page 8

On April 20, Minister of Agriculture Su Jia-chyuan (蘇嘉全) visited the College of Bio-Resources and Agriculture at National Taiwan University to talk about the government's new agricultural movement, which they were calling "Taiwan's Agriculture Shines." It was then that Liao An-ting (廖安定), the head of the Council of Agriculture's planning division, mentioned a novel statistic: If you include the secondary and tertiary sectors, such as processed agricultural products and recreational agriculture, the nation's total agricultural product is valued at 13 percent of the GDP. This was the first time such a statistic had been released by the council. But is it really true that the agricultural sector in Taiwan is worth only 13 percent of the GDP?

In Japan, the primary output value of every single hectare of paddy field is estimated to be some NT$360,000. But these paddy fields also hold water reserves rich in nutrients, store rainwater and flood waters, and provide a natural habitat for wild animals. They can also absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and can be used for recreational and educational purposes. The value of all these things added together is what we have come to term "green GDP."

So, how much is this worth? According to estimates by Japanese academics, the figure is approximately NT$800,000, more than twice the primary production value. Other things add to this value, beyond the paddy fields themselves. These include trees, both broadleaf and conifer. Taiwan's trees have not been felled for more than a decade now, with 99 percent of our supply of wood coming from imports. This puts the primary production value of the nation's trees at close to zero. But it must be remembered that our tree stock is growing year by year, as is the potential wood available for use. Is it really true, then, that the forests are worth nothing? This is a misconception resulting from the fact that the agricultural industry only counts primary production value.

Agriculture in Taiwan has been undervalued ever since the policy of using the sector to spur industry started in 1964. And the way in which farmers and agriculture have been ignored by the government all this time is a shame.

But it serves the council right. When officials in charge of economic and financial policy calculated primary output value in the past, they never explained, or even asked their own experts on agricultural economy to estimate, the value of the secondary and tertiary agricultural sectors. Nor did they ask professors of agriculture to estimate green GDP. Su should enlist the help of university professors and council experts to calculate these figures so that those with decisionmaking power can learn the importance of the agricultural sector and understand that allocating agricultural subsidies makes sense.

Modern agricultural production differs from traditional production. In the era of the knowledge economy, some of the most popular electronics companies turn less than a 5 percent profit, but they produce many types of pollution and consume water and electricity. On the other hand, someone growing black pearl wax apples or cultivating cobia fish can earn 20 percent or 30 percent profits.

People who work in the high-tech industry, economists, lawyers and rich people in general, can thank the agricultural sector for the fact that they are able to enjoy scenic spots in agricultural areas. While national unemployment figures are on the rise, rural villages often serve as a buffer zone and help to promote social order. It is not just idle talk when we say that the modern agriculture industry works for the good of everyone.

Yang Ping-shih is a professor in the College of Bio-Resources and Agriculture at National Taiwan University.

Translated by Paul Cooper and Perry Svensson