Talks about the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) have finally restarted. Although the government has taken a defensive approach on the importation of US pork, ground beef and innards, most farmers are worried and doubt that it will be able to stick to its guns.
Amid these concerns, government officials have become more careful when making official statements on the issue. Until it has gathered and integrated all opinions by different government departments and established complementary measures to reach a consensus with farmers, the government is wary of making any threatening statement or floating any ideas to test public reaction for fear of getting burned.
Data show that in 2011, Taiwan imported 24,744 tonnes of US pork, accounting for more than 30 percent of the nation’s total pork imports.
Domestic opposition to the import of US pork containing leanness-enhancing additives stems in part from public health concerns given that Taiwanese are under greater risk than Westerners because of their predilection for eating pigs’ innards.
One other more important reason is imports of large volumes of cheaper US pork would have a big impact on the domestic livestock industry and the economy of agricultural villages — with the cost of raising one pig 1.8 times higher in Taiwan than that in the US. This would have affect a NT$100 billion (US$3.35 billion) industry, as well as the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people.
One cannot just write off the resulting social commotion by saying that it is simply a matter of “give and take.”
For safety reasons, Taiwanese officials should cite differences in eating habits and demand that the US provide studies by health experts specifying the amount of ractopamine residues in different parts of the pig and their effect on Asian people and specific groups, such as pregnant women, people with cardiovascular disease, or infants and small children. They cannot just brush the issue aside by saying that since Americans can eat it, Taiwanese have nothing to fear.
The government has also been using the media to spread the idea that unless a deal is reached on US pork, there would be no TIFA nor Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is the same strategy that the administration used in the debate over US beef imports and which it is now using to justify continued construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City (新北市).
However, after the twin hikes in fuel and electricity prices and the signing of the cross-strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), and with public satisfaction with and trust in government at an all-time low, it is questionable that playing the “economic card” again would resonate with the public.
It seems that the government has oversimplified the complexity of international trade talks and the highly technical skills such talks require. At a time when hog farmers are worried that the industry might collapse and the economy continues to stagnate, it seems government officials are lacking in sincerity and generosity.
If allowing imports of US pork containing leanness-enhancing additives would guarantee accession to the TPP, the government should be straightforward about it and inform the public.
It should also promise that it would use the economic benefits — which could be calculated with the help of economic models — derived from the accession to make up for the losses sustained by hog farmers by offering to help them upgrade their production facilities and set up certification and testing system to guarantee the safety of domestically produced pork and pigs’ innards.
It could also set up different distribution channels to separate US pork from domestic pork. At the same time, it should promote locally produced food products and encourage consumers to buy local produce, as well as offer ways for farmers who want to exit the industry. Above all, these pledges should be enshrined in law to prevent the government from going back on its word.
From the perspective of industrial sustainability, it would not be appropriate to rush forward and allow US pork imports at the current stage. However, following changes in the general environment, such as trade liberalization, increased green gas emissions, changes in consumption patterns, population increases, water shortages and rapid agricultural development in other countries, it has become imperative for Taiwan to implement major structural adjustments to its agricultural industry. The government should use this as an opportunity to respond to such changes, by actively promoting green energy agriculture and zero-pollution hog farming.
Although the domestic hog farming industry is bigger than other types of livestock farming, it is still made up mostly of small and medium-sized farms that are vulnerable to fluctuations in feed and hog prices. Taiwanese hog farms cannot compete with farms overseas that usually have more than 10,000 pigs.
In addition, the waste and polluted water generated by such farms has a negative impact on the environment. All these issues are areas in which the government should offer guidance and improvements. How to make Taiwanese agriculture strong enough to respond to the impact of market opening and deregulation that could follow from international trade talks is more urgent than an all-out effort to prevent market opening altogether.
Du Yu is a member of the Chen-Li task force for Agricultural Reform.
Translated by Perry Svensson