Time for agriculture to modernize

By Du Yu 杜宇  / 

Fri, Nov 16, 2012 - Page 8

The Council of Agriculture has recently come up with various policies to aid the sector, including revitalizing fallow farmland, guaranteeing minimum wages for farmers and establishing special high-tech farm areas. However, all these measures have been piecemeal, lacked foresight and failed to take into consideration the greater scheme of things.

They have not helped the domestic agricultural sector to cope with the challenges of trade liberalization, such as removing the reliance on subsidies, replacing older farmers with younger ones, and marketing Taiwanese agricultural products and technology around the world.

While the circumstances vary between agricultural regions and individual farmers, a close look at the impact of agricultural policies in other countries and interviews with successful farmers and businesses have revealed several successful examples worthy of emulation.

The government allocates hundreds of millions of New Taiwan dollars to the farming sector each year, and despite having officials with impressive academic backgrounds heading agricultural bodies, and with farmers working as hard as ever, the sector is still fraught with problems.

Farmers’ incomes are disproportionate to the work they put in, the gap between urban and rural areas continues to widen, farmers no longer feel pride in their work, and the imbalance between sales and production persists.

In response to these problems, each new minister of agriculture has proposed new policy directions, but none of these have been able to cut right to the heart of the problems farmers face. These ministers have obviously given out the wrong diagnosis and the wrong medicine. The agricultural industry is full of “blockages” and these are what has caused the agricultural sector to lose its vitality and farming villages to become progressively old and outdated, with agriculture being mocked as a dead industry.

If the agricultural sector is to be brought back to life, the government can no longer be relied on to give the already seriously ailing agricultural sector “follow-up shots.” Instead, the “meridians” of the agricultural sector need to be opened up first.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, the human body has two main meridians. When these are open and energy flows through them smoothly, a person may enjoy good health and long life. When they are clogged, pain is felt in the body. In the same way, the agricultural sector is tied up in knots, blocking its smooth operation. This is the main cause of Taiwan’s agricultural problems. Only by untying these knots can the sector run smoothly and develop in a sustainable manner.

When it comes to the meridians of the nation’s agricultural sector, there are basically two problems: what is produced and where these products are sold.

Although the government has talked about expanding the scale of operations, employing more advanced technology and refining agricultural production, one has to consider the big differences in land conditions, water resources, farming scale, ideas on improving production and farmers’ skills, as well as the level of difficulty involved in achieving these goals. Despite this, the government has not come up with a concrete operational manual for farmers to follow when making assessments and rational choices.

On a related note, when it comes to the future of Taiwan’s agricultural development, many academics and experts have suggested that it should move toward organic farming, ecological agriculture, non-toxic agriculture and specialized agricultural zones, in line with global trends.

However, the problem lies in identifying what areas of the country are suitable for such development, as well as what areas may lack competitiveness even if they are suitable for development. Although the government has a great number of agricultural researchers, they are not engaged in planning nor in carrying out assessments to assist farmers willing to change their business model to attract investment in agribusiness.

It is a pity because such an approach could allow those involved in agriculture who treat the environment well to become the backbone of the industry.

In order to open up the market for Taiwan’s agricultural products, the government should get all agricultural testing and research personnel together, and have local governments assist them in drawing up standard operating procedures for these business models and compile them into a production manual.

Such a manual could include standards to be followed when choosing a business model, such as should one choose single or diversified crops, or what sort of climate is necessary for production — including information on sunlight, temperature differences, rainfall, soil quality and technology. The manual could also include information on how to choose varieties to plant and where to source them, as well as how to decide on the most appropriate scale of operation, including total area of operation, amount of capital needed, infrastructure, output and ratio.

Such an approach would lay down a roadmap for successful agricultural operations and would mean farmers no longer need to rely on gut feeling alone.

Distribution channels are also critical to improving the sector. Taiwan’s limited domestic demand and capacity, and its less-than-successful efforts to open up overseas markets have frequently resulted in an imbalance between sales and production.

This has hurt farmers as prices plunge — a problem that has long plagued the industry.

Taiwan’s market for traditional agricultural products has long suffered from problems such as a lack of transparent information on trading, products being easily polluted or damaged during transportation, and a complex supply chain resulting in high intermediary and storage costs. These problems have caused trading prices on wholesale markets and prices at the place of origin to differ so greatly that farmers’ incomes are out of proportion to the amount of hard work they put in.

Teaching farmers how to open up markets for themselves is the most important thing agricultural agencies can do. This is especially true in the modern age, as the Internet, group buying and delivery services become more widespread.

Consumer behavior has also changed, and in future, technology can be used to establish a complete platform for the production and sale of agricultural products, including information on production and sale inside and outside of Taiwan, market prices and the current status of consumers.

All these factors could assist farmers in making the correct decisions when it comes to the production and sale of agricultural products.

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

Translated by Drew Cameron