Why laying land fallow gives little in return *
Translated by Paul Cooper，刊於2015年2月15日Taipei Times, Opinion
Taiwan has experienced dry weather since late last year, meaning that water levels in reservoirs have fallen.
As a result, the Council of Agriculture (COA) has announced that over 40,000 hectares of farmland should be left fallow, and not irrigated, in order to cope with demand for household and industrial water use. The percentage of water usage can be broken down as 20 percent, 70 percent and 10 percent for household, agricultural and industrial use respectively.
Article 19 of the Water Act (水利法) stipulates that, during shortages, the government can place restrictions on industrial and agricultural water usage, while Article 18 specifies household use as the priority, followed by agricultural use then industrial use. Yet whenever there is a drought, it is the agricultural sector that is targeted for cutbacks, violating the water usage priorities set out by the government.
Furthermore, calling for agricultural land to lay fallow has not just happened in periods of drought. In 2002, Taiwan formally became the WTO’s 144th member. To balance domestic supply and demand of rice, agricultural land was made to lay fallow to allow for the import of rice. At one point, the figure was as high as 160,000 hectares — accounting for about 40 percent of the nation’s rice paddies and 20 percent of total agricultural land.
When the COA pushed for land to lay fallow to make way for trade liberalization, it did not clearly define the rice production sector, nor specify its goals. It just announced that rice was the nation’s primary food product, encapsulating a range of issues including food security, economic development in farming communities, social stability, environmental conservation and cultural transmission, and that for this reason it was of paramount importance to maintain an appropriate amount of rice-producing land to ensure food security and maintain sustainable development of the industry.
If one adds the 40,000 hectares of agricultural land that is to lay fallow to other land previously left fallow, the total amount of farmland currently uncultivated is equal to about 50 percent of the available paddy fields, or 25 percent of the total area of the nation’s agricultural land.
Assuming there are no advances in rice production technology, it is difficult to see what advantage the COA envisages in the creeping expansion of the area of agricultural land being made to lay fallow.
Has it learned anything from the experience of laying land fallow in the interests of trade liberalization? Has it found a solution to the wider environmental impact of pests and rodents “encouraged” by laying land fallow? Does it know whether land adjacent to the land being left uncultivated needs to be sprayed with a greater amount of chemicals, pesticides or herbicides as a result?
Has it identified any change in the attitude of those farmers required to stop working their land? Has this had a detrimental effect on the policies of attracting young people to work in the agricultural sector, or of increasing the scale of individual farm operations?
Surely farmers are not sitting around waiting for a COA announcement that farmland should lay fallow, or that all production should be commissioned to other nations in response to changes in the climate, or to comply with the regulations from the latest agricultural agreements, or in response to the many short, mid and long-term factors that the COA does not have any control over.
* Translated by Paul Cooper，刊於2015年2月15日Taipei Times, Opinion