Editorial: Ma backtracks on agriculture

Thu, Jan 31, 2013 - Page 8

While a growing number of Taiwanese have gotten used to President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) reneging on campaign pledges, it is still shocking to see how brazenly he flip-flops.

The latest entry on the long list of broken promises is the Ma administration’s plan to lift restrictions on 830 types of Chinese agricultural products and allow imports of Chinese agricultural raw materials for processing in the proposed Free Economic Demonstration Zones. Media reports say the government also plans to allow these Chinese products to be exported under Taiwanese brand names, with 10 percent allowed to enter the local market.

Council of Agriculture Minister Chen Bao-ji (陳保基) on Tuesday said that in the next cross-strait negotiations, during which China might ask Taiwan to open its market further to Chinese products, the government would uphold three principles: protecting the interests of Taiwanese farmers, guaranteeing the sustainable development of the agriculture sector and adding value to the agriculture sector.

However sincere a face Chen may put on while trying to reassure Taiwan’s farmers and agricultural industry, the public has all the reason in the world to be doubtful, given the administration’s poor track record on keeping its word.

In a February 2009 interview with the Taipei Times Ma said: “Normalizing trade and economic relations with the mainland does not necessarily mean allowing Chinese labor or letting more Chinese agricultural products enter the local market.”

In a January 2010 interview with the Taipei Times he reiterated that his government would not allow the import of more Chinese agricultural products under the then yet-to-be signed Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement. He also denied that the government would be coerced into fully opening the markets in 10 years under the agreement with Beijing.

Yet just three years later the government’s stance has completely changed.

Farmers’ organizations yesterday said they planned to take to the streets on Sunday to protest against the government’s apparent U-turn. Farmers have good reason to be concerned about how the planned moves might exacerbate an already vulnerable agriculture sector.

A number of Taiwanese agricultural products have already fallen victim to smuggled Chinese rivals as the result of the government’s inefficient efforts to block them. The smuggled goods not only upset market prices, but also put the nation’s food security at risk because the products are often substandard and do not meet food safety regulations.

The 10 percent of Chinese products that are to be processed in the zones before entering Taiwan’s market may also hurt the marketing of local agricultural products. Made in Taiwan (MIT) products, which are highly regarded by consumers worldwide, often sell for more than their Chinese counterparts. Many Taiwanese are concerned that allowing cheaper Chinese agricultural raw materials to be processed in the zones and then exported under the MIT brand will damage the hard-won image of authentic MIT products.

Meanwhile, a host of other issues concerning the sustainable development of agriculture, such as reviving fallow farmland, awaits action from the government.

The Ma government needs to sit down with representatives of farmers’ groups and listen attentively to their concerns and suggestions. Simply reciting slogans about “three guarantees,” as Chen did, is no longer enough, given Ma’s lack of credibility with the public.