Two years ago, residues of chemicals such as melamine and plasticizers were found in drinks, causing a mass panic among consumers. Since then, the government has worked hard to ensure food safety and promote various types of safety certification for agricultural products.
However, sometimes we still hear of agricultural products that contain inappropriate, or excessive levels of pesticides, chemicals and heavy metals. This shows that blind spots remain in the government’s attempts to ensure safety.
With a new year upon us, it is high time it hurries up and does something to correct this situation.
To give consumers a choice when buying agricultural products, agricultural authorities have been active in guiding the initiation of certification schemes for organic farming, traceability of produce and farms that qualify for Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Certified Agricultural Standards certification.
However, due to problems resulting from poor soil, a lack of clean water, insufficient water supply, dust pollution, insufficient buffer zones — which increases the risk of pollution by chemicals sprayed on neighboring farmland — and the tedious certification processes, the variety of agricultural products and total land area currently certified remains quite limited.
Official data show that in late August last year, 2,503 farmers had obtained certification as organic farmers, and the total certified area was 5,243 hectares.
On Nov. 30 last year, 616 producers had received produce traceability certification, covering 7,635 hectares of farmland. This represents less than 1 percent of the nation’s total agricultural production area, and although the requirements for GAP certification are less stringent, less than half of the distribution channels for agricultural products have obtained this certification.
At present, a majority of farmers have not received any form of certification. They focus on traditional farming methods, and they are the ones who most often experience problems.
To ensure consumer food safety, the government should focus its guidance and efforts on these farmers and start including them in their controls. This is the only way to address the problems resulting from residues of unacceptable chemicals, heavy metals and antibiotics still being found in agricultural products.
The best way to ensure the safety of agricultural products is to adopt a lot-by-lot inspection method, like the method previously used for toxin-free farming in Hualien.
However, the labor, equipment and costs involved are on a very large scale. The government’s fiscal situation may not allow this, and many advanced agricultural nations have not adopted this approach.
So what should be done to bring about safer agricultural production?
The EU is trying to improve the safety of agricultural products through the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points system. This is used during production to help effectively manage the health of plants and farm animals.
For products already circulating in the market, the EU has a warning system that operates quickly and helps it manage risk.Then, at the consumer end, the EU has a food labeling system that helps consumers make more informed choices about what they eat.
Taiwan could also learn from Japan. It uses a strict system with different levels of inspection for imported products and the authorities have set up a traceability system for domestic products that treats different product groups in different ways. For more important products, such as beef and rice and their derived products, a compulsory traceability system is used while other products are autonomous of government control.
Japan also uses agricultural cooperative organizations to establish a high-quality nationwide farming system. This uses information technology to establish records on, and manage, a traceability system for the production, processing and distribution of products, inspection certifications based on both internal and external inspections, and full disclosure of information, using the Internet and retail markets to provide up-to-date information about production, distribution and food safety to producers and consumers.
Using these approaches Japan has successfully integrated the government, producers, wholesalers and consumers into a system which shares responsibility for ensuring agricultural product safety. Taiwan should take a closer look at these worthwhile measures.
Agricultural authorities should — in addition to implementing controls at the level of seed planting — establish simple biochemistry test sites at farmers’ associations and agricultural cooperatives around the nation, and use the number of times a certain farmer passes testing as a basis for issuing subsidies to encourage farmers to take a more active role in submitting their produce for testing, which should be free of charge.
The government should also pay special attention to agricultural products that test positive for pesticide residues and to the producers of these products. Testing and controls need to be strengthened and cooperation is needed with health authorities on examinations at outlets where food is sold.
This is the only way to guarantee the safety of agricultural products from Taiwan and to help farmers as well as consumers.
Du Yu is a member of the Chen-Li task force for Agricultural Reform.
Translated by Drew Cameron