Following two days of protests on agricultural issues, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) yesterday pledged to set up a task force to resolve problems in the sector, while the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) criticized the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) record on the matter when it was in office.
Speaking in Changhua County, Ma said that within a week he would establish a task force and put forward solutions on the controversial Land Expropriation Act (土地徵收條例) and the distribution of water resources, two key issues raised by thousands of farmers, academics and farmers’ rights activists on Ketagalan Boulevard over the weekend.
In a hastily called press conference yesterday morning, officials denied the government was neglecting the agricultural sector, a claim made by the DPP, which sided with the protesters and used the opportunity to criticize the government’s agricultural policy.
Despite its limited contribution to the economy — less than 2 percent of GDP — the government has not overlooked the agricultural sector, Council of Agriculture (COA) Minister Chen Wu-hsiung (陳武雄) said, adding that the ministry’s budget this year accounted for more than 6 percent of the national budget, higher than the 3 percent to 5 percent seen in Japan and South Korea.
The government has set up a goal of increasing Taiwan’s level of food self-sufficiency from 32 percent to 40 percent, he said.
As for water, only 1.6 percent of water for agricultural uses has been transferred to industrial sectors or for commercial use, Chen said, adding that this is only done in winter when the agricultural demand for water is lower, Chen said.
Ma, who is seeking re-election in January, has made efforts to help farmers by exploring exports to China and increasing the government’s purchase of farm produce, campaign spokeswoman Lee Chia-fei (李佳霏) said.
“If [DPP Chairperson and presidential candidate] Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) opposes agricultural exports to China, she may as well make that one of the platforms of her presidential campaign,” Lee said.
Lee said there were 14 cases of supply greatly exceeding demand for agricultural produce during the DPP administration from 2000 until 2008 and at least two cases during Tsai’s tenure as vice premier from 2006 to 2007.
“Those problems were not solved at the time,” she said.
The KMT’s offensive came in the wake of meetings by Tsai with residents in three southern municipalities, during which she focused on increasing subsidies, sustainable development and a law to better protect farmers’ rights.
Capitalizing on the sit-in over the weekend, as well as recent complaints against the Ma administration by fruit farmers concerned about low prices for produce, Tsai pledged to overturn existing farming polices to make the industry more viable and sustainable.
“We need a more responsible president,” Tsai told farmers in Tainan’s Liuying District (柳營). “One that understands the needs of agricultural workers and who will stand on the same side as the people.”
Donning a straw hat and carrying a bushel of rice, Tsai said: “After all, the government’s role should be to truly take care of farmers, not just make remarks to the press,” in response to Ma’s recent comments promising to prioritize the industry.
The controversy, sparked after banana farmers in Pingtung County complained to the president about record-low fruit prices on July 9, could end up proving to be a boost to the DPP’s election chances.
The government has pledged to stabilize fruit prices, with Ma ordering the Council of Agriculture to propose an overall solution regarding water distribution, slumping produce prices and concerns about the expropriation of farmland that led to Saturday’s sit-in.
Tsai said a future DPP -administration would conduct a thorough review of public resource distribution in a manner that would help stabilize rural development and seek to make agriculture and value-added goods a new focus of the country’s economy.
“The DPP will change the old and dated idea of using agriculture to develop the industrial sector and raise the role farming plays in the national economy,” Tsai said, adding that she would support the proposed basic agricultural law bill, which aims to revitalize the sector.
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