Mon, May 30, 2005 - Page 2 News List

Rice tasters seeking a market edge

COMPETITION Taiwan's struggling rice producers are focussing on the quality and flavor of their rice in a bid to take on their cheaper market rivals

AFP , CHANGHUA

A farmer uses a machine to spray fertilizer on his paddy field in Changhua last month. The Taiwanese government has been trying to improve the flavor and quality of the rice so farmers can compete on quality rather than price in the face of cheap overseas imports.

PHOTO: AFP

Sitting on a long wooden bench in a small spartan room, a group of 10 men and women dip chopsticks into bowls filled with five varieties of rice.

In complete silence and keeping a poker face, each samples just a few grains, chewing thoughtfully before jotting down his or her comments.

There are no accompaniments except for bottled water, and they are forbidden to exchange opinions before they filling out the form.

Taiwan's rice tasters are judging different varieties of grain grown by local farmers and the group, a unit under a laboratory of state-owned Taichung District Agricultural Research and Extension Station, repeats the routine sampling process twice a day.

Their records are being used by the agricultural authorities to recommend the best quality rice to growers, as part of a strategy to help the country's beleaguered rice farmers.

The aim is to improve the flavor and quality of the rice so farmers can compete on quality rather than price in the face of cheap overseas imports forced on them by membership of the WTO.

"Taiwanese are close to Japanese and Koreans in their taste of rice. They prefer rice which is a little bit sticky," says Dr. Sheu Chih-seng, head of the laboratory.

Rice is judged by its appearance, aroma, flavor, cohesion and tenderness, he says.

Though the team's work may go unnoticed by the nation's 23 million people, Sheu is proud of his team for helping one of Taiwan's biggest and oldest industries.

"Since its establishment in 1982, this laboratory has laid a solid foundation for Taiwan's good-quality rice production system," he says.

The rice research and development efforts have become more important to Taiwanese farmers since they came under mounting competitive pressure following the Taiwan's entry in 2002 into the WTO.

As part of its WTO terms, Taiwan is required to import at least 144,720 tonnes of rice each year, slash government subsidies to the farming industry, and lower tariffs on agricultural imports.

In the face of massive foreign rice dumping, agricultural authorities have had to order tens of thousands of domestic rice farmers to leave their paddies idle.

"Because of the relatively high production cost, Taiwan rice growers can hardly compete with their peers from elsewhere in the world," says Shih Chin-hsiung, head of Taiwan's non-profit Excellent Farmers Association. "Labor costs accounts for some 60 percent of the cost of domestic rice farming."

The size of Taiwan's total paddy area has shrunk to some 130,000 hectares, down from a peak of some 350,000 hectares in the 1980s, according to tallies of the Council of Agriculture.

"Having their rice paddy lay idle is the last thing rice farmers would like to see. It is not the right remedy to address the problem," says Lo Nien-hsing, who owns four hectares of rice paddy in the central Changhua county.

Tens of thousands of hectares of rice paddy have also been diverted for industrial uses and planting of economic crops like sugarcane, maize, red beans and green beans, as well as sweet potatoes.

On average, Taiwan's rice farmers make only NT$30,000 (US$960) on every hectare of rice paddy per each half-year harvest, Shih says.

"A majority of local rice growers are now only part-time farmers. They spend much of their time running small businesses or working in nearby factories. Few farmers here can survive only by growing rice," he adds.

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