Since coming into office more than four years ago, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his government have kept telling the public how they are going to every length possible to help improve the lives of farmers. However, facts have shown that pay for professional farmers in Taiwan is still very low — less than NT$20,000 a month.
In the past few days, various media outlets have reported that in order to improve their relationships with various legislators, staff from Taipei’s National Palace Museum spent a large amount of taxpayers’ money giving gifts to legislators for the Mid-Autumn Festival and ended up buying expensive grapes imported from Japan instead of local agricultural produce.
By contrast, when local smartphone maker HTC Corp’s overseas sales started to drop, the Ma administration appealed to the public to buy more Taiwanese-made products. He also expressed his hope that the civil service could take the lead in the procurement of high-tech products. If one compares these reactions, it is no wonder that many people are now convinced that the government does a lot to help large corporations while only paying lip service to looking after farmers.
Take the Ma administration’s attempts to get younger people to return to rural areas to get involved in farming: Agricultural authorities are planning to establish a minimum monthly wage of NT$18,780 for farmers starting next year for a period of two years. Not only have a large number of academics expressed doubt about the efficacy of such an approach, many have said that the crux of the nation’s current agricultural problems lies in its incomplete production and sale system; environmental pollution; and a lack of funds and information in vital areas like quarantines, labeling and the amount of agricultural produce made and sold domestically and overseas.
These issues have seen farmers working very hard without getting back what they deserve while also pushing many into severe debt. The government’s inconsistent and perpetually changing agricultural policies are also another factor that has seen the younger generation back away from the farming industry.
The Japanese government has also aimed to encourage the younger generation to return to their rural homes and engage in agricultural work. Apart from providing training in things like agricultural technology, production, and sales and market analysis, the Japanese government has given out subsidies and loans, and devised policies on farmland allocation and housing.
Tokyo has also set up many direct-sale stores and delivery channels to minimize exploitation of agricultural workers by intermediaries. For example, farmers in Japan have been provided with farmhouses situated close to major roads and transport stations that they can use at a low cost and from which they can directly sell their produce. In order to promote the selling of local agricultural products in local areas, the Japanese government has even encouraged famous chefs to make more use of local agricultural products and has held a cooking competition to highlight local produce called the Ryori Masters.
This shows that in order to help improve the lives of farmers, Tokyo has not resorted to holding a bunch of ineffective festivals and weekend markets, but has instead thought about how to use a variety of approaches to bring tourism, transport, culinary culture and businesses together to solve the pressing problem of the imbalance that exists between producing and selling agricultural goods.
The Taiwanese government should also come up with some concrete solutions to help the nation’s farmers instead of sitting around talking without taking action.
Lee Wu-chung is a professor of agricultural economics.
Translated by Drew Cameron