Reading China's agricultural aims



By Wu Ping-Ing

professor of the department of Agriculture Economics,

National Taiwan University

 published in Taipei Times, Apr 26, 2005,Page 8

Translated by Lin Ya-Ti

Taipei Times




The debate over China buying Taiwan's agricultural produce has polarized public opinion. Most pan-greens believe Beijing's intentions are malicious, while most pan-blues see this as offering salvation for the nation's agriculture, or at least a solution to the occasional agricultural surplus.

By considering how regular trading partners such as the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan, as well as the less important EU, have responded to the agreements and regulations imposed by the WTO -- an organization that claims to promote free trade for the benefit of mankind -- we can see what malign consequences may result from China's offer.

Agriculture is a unique industry. Its uniqueness lies not only in its reliance on the weather and its dependence on large quantities of water, soil and labor, but also in the fact that products are easily interchangeable. If one kind of vegetable is not available, we can always buy another kind. This is the reason it took nearly a decade (1986 to 1995) for the WTO to hammer out a consensus on removing or reducing import-export barriers for agricultural products.

Although a consensus has been reached, WTO member countries each use whatever methods are available that do not violate the agreement to sell more than they buy. It is therefore worth asking why China is willing to purchase so much of Taiwan's agricultural produce, regardless of price.

The Cairns Group, a group within the WTO made up of several countries that export agricultural products, including the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and some Central American nations, makes every endeavor to promote the sales of agricultural produce to the world.

Another group lead by the EU takes the opposite stance, instead placing emphasis on the agricultural environment and quality of life, and resists agricultural imports from other nations. Amid the debate between the two factions, a power bloc, the so-called "non-trade concern" (NTC), has come into being to resist agricultural exporters.

What concerns the NTC is that agricultural exporters should not ignore the other functions of agriculture in a society. The value of these functions cannot be seen simply by calculating agricultural production as a proportion of national income.

Only by emphasizing these agricultural values can we maintain the sustainable development of Taiwan's agriculture.

Japan and South Korea can also be categorized as members of the non-EU NTC.

Japan is concerned that its link with sushi -- and also rice -- may one day cease, so it emphasizes the importance of rice in Japanese culture. If everyone in Japan was to consume sushi made of rice cultivated in California, the rice stalks that appear on Japanese banknotes would become meaningless.

For this reason, Japan regards agricultural products from other countries as a kind of cultural invasion. EU nations point out that without agriculture, Europe would lose the rural scenery of which it is so proud, quite apart from the issue of the security of its food supply.

There is not much that agricultural exporters can do in the face of such strong resistance.

By looking at these countries, we can deduce that the ultimate goal of China, a country with greater water, soil and labor resources than Taiwan, is to boost its agricultural exports.

China now welcomes Taiwan's farmers to participate in its agricultural development, especially in setting up experimental farms. But these farms can only take care of a small minority of farmers, and their livelihood was never the main issue in any case.

In the past, Taiwan made considerable efforts to resist the import of chicken from the US. It should also be concerned about how to handle the sale of China's agricultural produce in Taiwan, especially as these products may be of a quality equal to that produced in this country.

If we accept the incentives now proposed by China, Taiwan may end up with no agricultural products to export, and this may well sound the death knell for the nation's agriculture as a whole.


Wu Pei-ing is a professor in the department of agricultural economics at National Taiwan University.

Translated by Lin Ya-ti