One of the main reasons for the slow progress of a government proposal to establish free economic pilot zones is value-added agriculture. The public has different opinions about value-added agriculture and there are many areas that need to be clarified.
Unfortunately, the government has focused its attention on the trivial matter of peanuts and peanut butter, and to date, government agencies have not given any clear answers to issues such as whether labels stating the source of ingredients should be attached to products produced in the zones, how to best go about assuring that local agricultural ingredients come first, how to avoid processed agricultural products made in such a zone from illegally entering the domestic market, how to avoid competition from hurting Taiwanese agricultural products on the international market, whether the zones represent a disguised lifting of the ban on the importation of 830 types of Chinese agricultural products and doubts about the benefits the zones will bring to local agriculture.
The government is obviously deliberately focusing on trivial matters to divert attention from more important issues and this is why it is unable to convince the public. As such, the government’s policy should not be pushed through hastily.
The heart of Taiwan’s agricultural competitiveness lies in technology, management and certification, because this is what allows it to produce the high-quality agricultural products that make Made in Taiwan (MIT) products so popular overseas. It took many people many years of hard work to achieve these results, and it is the only thing that allows Taiwan to resist competition from cheaper agricultural products from other countries in face of ever-increasing market liberalization.
This is why listing the ingredients that Taiwanese products contain must be clear to differentiate them from the products of other countries, and Taiwan can look at the US’ Country of Origin Labeling system for reference. Taiwan cannot allow agricultural products made with foreign ingredients in the zones to enter the domestic market, because this would be bad for its own agricultural products and would be misleading to consumers.
For example, making pineapple cakes in the zones using foreign ingredients may not pose a threat to a well-known and established pineapple cake brand like Sunny Hills, but it would affect the sale of other lesser-known domestically produced pineapple cakes.
Another important issue is the ban on 830 Chinese agricultural products. For example, supposing products were made in the zones using imported tilapia for export, this would create competition for similar products completely made in Taiwan using Taiwanese tilapia. Therefore, discussion should not just be limited to the issue of peanuts and peanut butter.
The government’s main responsibility lies in adding value to MIT products. This includes measures such as improving breeds, the reasonable application of fertilizer, the safe use of pesticides, overall quality certification, the establishment of complete supply chains and the use of automated storage and retrieval systems, as well as transport. This would also involve using local high-quality agricultural ingredients to promote secondary and tertiary industries, creating greater added value for them and sharing profits with the farmers who work at the front of the production line.
The Japanese government encourages farmers’ groups, businesses and banks to pool their funds to promote agricultural processing and marketing to share the profits with farmers and increase their incomes.
If bringing in agribusiness would help upgrade Taiwan’s agricultural sector and improve its competitiveness, it is, of course, not a bad thing. However, the government should focus its policies on how to best go about preventing people from taking advantage of opportunities to speculate on farmland, while also looking after the allocation of profits to prevent wealth from becoming concentrated in the hands of a minority of businesses.
Many of the activities in the zones would be related to the exercise of state power; for example, ensuring that products made under controlled processing or value adding are sold only overseas and that they cannot enter the domestic market; checking the safety of imported agricultural ingredients and implementing disease control; how to avoid having controlled species of imported aquarium fish enter the Taiwanese market; and resolving the issue of whether products produced in the zones can have the MIT label attached to them.
However, so far, the government has been unable to even deal with the issue of the safety of the rice we eat, as well as a whole string of corruption cases regarding customs, so the government really needs to think about how it should get the public to believe in its ability to regulate the above-mentioned things.
Another major source of worry is aquarium fish. The government keeps saying that value-added agriculture does not merely involve agricultural processing. However, when we look at the finer details, it is still mainly focused on agricultural processing.
Bringing in aquarium fish from outside Taiwan and their related businesses to promote value-added agriculture would not only run counter to the goal of establishing the zones, but it could also expose the nation to serious risks, such as attacks by foreign pathogens, damage to domestic species and the ecological environment, hybrid species of agricultural products being thrown out after being cultivated and genetically modified aquarium fish affecting the export of other local species of fish. Such practices would also counter global conservation agreements and should not be overlooked.
The biggest point of contention when promoting value-added agriculture lies in whether the zones will bring more good or more bad to Taiwan’s agriculture, and this is an issue that has polarized opinion, a case in point being the various opinions regarding peanuts and peanut butter. It would seem that all of these opinions are exaggerations: for example, the way some say that the zones will take Taiwan’s agriculture to a new level or that if they are passed, farmers will be completely wiped out.
Both those for and against the pilot zones must come up with concrete evidence and allow the public to assess it. We cannot let ourselves lose the opportunity to have a rational say in this whole debate.
Du Yu is chief executive officer of the Chen-Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform.
Translated by Drew Cameron
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