The future of Taiwan's agriculture is organic

By Warren Kuo 郭華仁  / 

Sat, Jun 02, 2007 - Page 8

It almost seems like May was "Hatta Yoichi month." There was no end to the articles and activities commemorating him.

Starting in 1920, Hatta Yoichi spent 10 years building the Wushantou Reservoir (烏山頭水庫) and the Chianan Irrigation Canal (嘉南大圳). The reservoir has a capacity of 5.5 billion cubic meters and the catchment area stretches for more than 90km, while the irrigation canals are more than 1,000km long, providing water to 145,500 hectares of farmland in Chiayi, Tainan and nearby areas.

Before the construction of the canal, farmers were dependent on the weather for their farming, but that soon changed and the area has become the granary of Taiwan.

To this day, Hatta is admired for his great contribution. From the point of view of organic agriculture, he is even more relevant for the future of Taiwan.

Organic agriculture is useful in protecting the environment, advancing farming methods and providing health benefits for the consumer. For this reason, Europe has been strongly encouraging organic agriculture in the last few years; in Austria, organic farms already constitute more than 15 percent of farmland.

Although organic farming has been promoted in Taiwan for some years, progress has been limited: Organic farms constitute just 0.1 percent of the nation's farmland.

One reason might be that industrial pollution along the west coast makes it difficult to find land for organic fields. The early promotion of organic products placed too much emphasis on just the absence of pesticides. This misunderstanding was not cleared up right away, and is now hard to dismiss.

The Council of Agriculture recently announced that it was planning to set the maximum allowed concentration of pesticides in organic products at 5 percent of the safety limit for conventionally grown produce. This sparked a lot of criticism, and even members of the Consumers' Foundation misunderstand the essence of organic farming.

Organic agriculture involves a way of farming based on ecological principles, without using chemical fertilizers or pesticides, but that does not mean that if a small level of pesticides is found, the product is no longer organic. Neither Europe, the US nor Japan make such harsh presumptions. If the rule that no pesticides can be used is carried out strictly, then a small amount of unintentional pollution can make farmers lose confidence, and organic farming would be difficult to implement.

Of course, to make it possible for organic farming to be carried out normally, the farmland first has to be cleaned up. The Chianan Irrigation Canal can be used for exactly this purpose.

If the Wushantou Reservoir and the Chianan Irrigation Canal can be kept clean, they can be very useful for the cleaning of farmland. If organic farming is encouraged for all farmland close to the canal, then the irrigation water that the neighboring fields receive will be clean, which is better for organic farming. If this method is used close to the canal and then further away, and expanded to one field after another, perhaps the Chianan plains can slowly reclaim lost land.

This is what Hatta's contribution can mean in the modern era.

Of course there are also other reasons organic farming is hard to promote, but if we don't make more of an effort and stop farmland from becoming more and more polluted, the nation will be unable to produce safe, high-quality agricultural products.

We could then forget about selling our agricultural products on the international market.

Warren Kuo is a professor at National Taiwan University's Department of Agronomy.

Translated by Anna Stiggelbout