Speaking in reference to the 830 Chinese agricultural products currently banned from being imported into Taiwan, Council of Agriculture Minister Chen Bao-ji (陳保基) was reported as saying at a press conference on Jan. 29 that it was at the moment impossible to state categorically either that imports of these products would, or would not, be allowed to be imported in the future.
For Chen to be so ambiguous about a policy that would have a huge impact on Taiwan’s quality of life, industry and food sovereignty is truly shocking.
A look at 2011 alone shows that Taiwan’s trade deficit for agricultural products reached US$10.17 billion, which is approximately equivalent to the combined income of Taiwan’s 315,959 farmers.
Heavy dumping of foreign agricultural products has also caused real prices of Taiwan’s agricultural products to drop and this has directly affected farmers, whose real income per capita dropped from NT$270,000 in 2000 to NT$220,000 in 2011, which is only 70 percent of the levels enjoyed by non-farmers.
The government has implemented agricultural policies to force farmers into leaving their farmland fallow and amended laws to deregulate the trading of agricultural land, with the result that farmland is being used for industrial and urban development.
Taiwan has consequently lost 4,000 hectares of farmland per year over the past decade.
Taiwan’s current food self-sufficiency ratio is a mere 33.49 percent and last year’s consumer price index food products saw the largest increase of all products, moving up by 4.16 percent. This reveals the severe fluctuations in prices of consumer goods, which affect consumers and farmers most significantly.
It is already too late to combat the dumping of agricultural products from the US and other countries, but Chen could not give a straight answer on whether imports of the banned Chinese agricultural products would be allowed in future, or propose a policy to deal with the situation.
There is no doubt that the dumping of agricultural products will make lives harder for all Taiwanese, and it also worsens Taiwan’s already critical food safety issues.
Today’s free trade and neoliberalism has created a situation in which large multinational companies do everything they can to grab production resources around the world and monopolize distribution channels, then use political, legal and financial means to chisel off the surplus that should be enjoyed by the original producers.
In this process, consumers are stripped of their rights. They can no longer freely choose healthy and well-priced foods in reasonable amounts. Instead, consumers are struggling to maintain a semblance of consumer freedom as large transnational capitalists manipulate markets.
According to the Nyeleni Declaration issued at the Forum for Food Sovereignty in Africa in 2007, food sovereignty is “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”
Food sovereignty, therefore, is about producers and consumers being in charge of their own affairs.
What Taiwan needs now is not unfair trade based on exploitation, but a set of policies based on the smaller agricultural systems that we already have in place. These policies should allow Taiwanese farmers and consumers to decide what they want to plant, how they want to plant crops and what they want to eat.
Chen Ping-hsuan is a research fellow at Taiwan Rural Front.
Translated by Drew Cameron