Innovative farming key to progress

By Du Yu 杜宇  / 

Wed, May 04, 2011 - Page 8

Presidential candidates from both the blue and green camps have gone, separately, to visit agricultural communities to see what can be done to help them.

Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) said during her campaign for the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) presidential primary that she wanted to turn the policy of emphasizing industry over agriculture on its head, allowing agriculture to once more drive economic growth. Although very popular with farmers, this idea raised eyebrows elsewhere. Given the current state of agriculture, if we are going to revive this industry and lift farmers out of poverty, the key lies in the promotion of “innovative farming.”

Innovative farming refers to a new agricultural development model in which creative techniques — encompassing technological as well as artistic concepts — are applied to agricultural production and business operations to boost the value added. The supply chain locates agriculture within a complex network of core, support, complementary and derivatives industries. The business opportunities and job creation potential are considerable and can attract younger people, who are more interested in the creative side, into the field, addressing a problem farming has long faced: that of an aging workforce and obstacles to the introduction of new ideas and new technologies.

Many advanced countries are well aware of the business opportunities inherent in the robust development of an innovative farming sector that suits the particular conditions of each country. Although a country’s resources define the way in which this development proceeds, the unifying factor is that the farming should be both environmentally sound and entail a sustainable use of resources.

In France, for example, environmental issues are very much the prevalent concern, whereas in the Netherlands it is more about earning foreign currency. Japan takes a combined approach, incorporating green issues, environmental protection and leisure, and Germany focuses on the social benefits (agri-tourism and allotments).

Of these, it is in the Netherlands that the benefits are the most conspicuous. A relatively small country in terms of population and area, with about 16 million people living on 41,526km2 of land, a quarter of which lies below sea level, the Netherlands has high rainfall and little sunshine. Despite the apparently less than ideal farming conditions, constant innovation over the years has produced a farming industry valued at more than US$60 billion a year, with agricultural exports reaching more than US$13 billion, accounting for nearly 10 percent of global exports. The Netherlands is the world’s foremost producer of exports such as dairy products, flowers and vegetable seeds. Indeed, 67 percent of the worldwide flower trade comes from the Netherlands.

A high level of dependence on export trade means a corresponding vulnerability to international market fluctuations. Consequently, officials in Dutch embassies dotted around the world send up-to-date market information to farmers and businesspeople back home, so that they can react to new market realities and seize new business opportunities as they arise.

Taiwanese agriculture is subject to limited resources, high costs and a small domestic market for its goods. If it wants to address this, it will need to apply knowledge and innovation to make itself more competitive internationally and to attract new blood and fresh ideas. Also, from the overseas success stories we hear of, it is quite evident that supportive government policies and administrative efficiency are crucial. Governments can legislate to support innovative farming and provide necessary assurances. Germany, for example, has the Bundeskleingartengesetz (Federal Allotment Gardens Act), and similar legislation exists in the US. In France, practical measures are in place, including the provision of subsidies from a public fund as well as good terms on bank loans and other measures to promote agri-tourism.

In addition, several associations have been established to promote the industry, such as the confederation of allotment holders in Germany. Education institutions have been set up to cultivate the talent required to develop these industries and the high salaries on offer have started to attract talent from overseas.

Innovative farming does exist in Taiwan. The country already has, for example, a number of leisure farms, wineries and tourist orchards, pomelo and tea products, as well as cosmetic products such as loofah dew. However, these represent a very small percentage of the overall value of agriculture in this country and it still hasn’t got to the point where it benefits from economies of scale.

Innovative farming in Taiwan still suffers from several problems, including a small production scale; limited output; a lack of defining products that will enable the establishment of a brand; lack of standardization and consistency; the lack of standard quality and safety accreditation for agricultural products; insufficient investment for research and development; limited channels for the cultivation of talent; and few incentives and little support from the government. If the government really wants to help farmers, it should bring together civic groups and academics to plan how best to develop innovative farming. This is the only way it can inject new energy into agriculture in this country.

Du Yu is a member of the Chen-Li task force for Agricultural Reform.

TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER