QUARANTINE: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Taiwan farmers' lessons for Australia
, September 15, 2007
In contrast to Australia, Taiwan is raising its quarantine bar against agricultural imports from disease-affected countries, thereby ensuring that Taiwan's own produce enjoys the highest reputation in domestic and overseas markets. Jeffry Babb reports.Travellers flying into Taipei 25 years ago did not have any quarantine worries when carrying fruit and vegetables - passengers were actively encouraged to carry in fruit from abroad, and customs inspections were non-existent.
But that has changed since Taiwan has become a clean, green country. Now, Taiwan's fruit and vegetable-growers advertise the fact that they have very high environmental standards as a way of retaining their home market - and also as a boost to exports.
Indeed, now the public in Taiwan demands the highest standards of cleanliness in all foodstuffs. Recently, codling moth larvae were found in New Zealand apples, resulting in a ban on imports. Imports of beef from the United States and Japan were banned after the discovery of "mad cow" disease in those countries.Hard-won reputation
This provided an enormous boost to other exporters to the Taiwan market, in particular Australia, which has a hard-won reputation for the high standards of its produce.
What brought about this change in attitude? Taiwan is a small island, less than half the size of Tasmania, with a population of 23 million, its only resources being the skill and energy of its people and its fertile western plains - mountains take up about 70 per cent of the island.
A few generations ago, most people made a living from the land. Rice farming was the dominant mode of agricultural production. Even 25 years ago, in the south of Taiwan, it was common to see rice spread on the roadside to dry after the harvest.
What laid the foundation for Taiwan's incredibly swift transformation into one of the world's industrial powerhouses was the "Land to the Tiller" program of land redistribution. The former landowners were compensated by being given shares in state-owned industrial enterprises, such as Taiwan Cement, pumping capital and expertise into Taiwan's industrial sector.
Farmers went from renting their land to owning it - and new types of agriculture took off. For many years, agricultural products such as canned asparagus were Taiwan's best-known exports on world markets.
In the early years, people in the cities were happy enough to have a full rice bowl - and the farmers had an assured outlet for their crops. Imports of any sort were a luxury, including imported foodstuffs. People were not very concerned with environmental standards - indeed, the whole concept was alien.
Fast-forward 25 years, and the people of Taiwan had become wealthy. At times of major festivals such as Chinese New Year, big cities such as Taipei still emptied as people went south to see their families, who still lived on the farm; but industry and commerce were the major employers.
With their new-found prosperity, consumers demanded higher standards in everything, including the food they ate. The people of Taiwan were now no longer satisfied with just rice and a few vegetables for their meals. They could afford high-value foods such as imported beef and dairy products.
Indeed, the first signs of this revolution in consumption were apples being sold on street corners. The imported apples were all deep red and not very tasty - they sold on their lucky red colour - but consumers were prepared to pay a top price for this luxury. Not everything Taiwan's farmers produced could look forward to an easy sale to consumers - the people of Taiwan had become discriminating in what they ate.
Farmers began to realise that they needed a new approach to the market. Especially after Taiwan's entry into the World Trade Organization, the farmers began to adopt two strategies - first, to convince consumers that their clean, green product was better than the alternatives; and, second, to become vigilant about imported products that could threaten this clean, green status.
So well did they develop their reputation for quality that they not only held onto the domestic market; they began to sell their fruit and vegetables to notoriously difficult markets such as Japan.Premium price
Taiwan's farmers even began selling to mainland China, where consumers were prepared to pay a premium price for Taiwan's products, as China fought its own losing battled against environmental degradation. Some mainland Chinese merchants even began putting false "grown in Taiwan" labels on their products to boost sales.
Not only did Taiwan's consumers open their purses for their own farmers' local clean, green products, Taiwan began finding new, non-traditional markets abroad. Australia, for example, has recently approved the import of mangoes from Taiwan. As the seasons are reversed between Australia and Taiwan, they can supply the market when Australia's own products are out of season.
In all, Taiwan's farmers have consolidated their home market and developed new markets abroad by improving quality and by being vigilant about quarantine, to preserve the integrity of their produce from imported diseases that could destroy their hard-won reputation for quality at home and abroad. It's a lesson Australia could learn from.- Jeffry Babb was until recently a Taipei-based journalist.