As Taiwan sees its elections approaching, and citizens living in agricultural households still form an important constituency, local media reports describing farmers’ plight pop up in ever shorter intervals. One persisting issue is that China has been sponging up the island’s agricultural techniques in an exorbitant manner. According to the allegation, the Chinese authorities have established twenty-five “Taiwan Farmers Pioneer Parks”, which sole purpose it is to steal Taiwanese agricultural know-how. Despite Taiwan’s farming industry constituting only 1.5 percent of the GDP, or US$11.8 billion, the cross-Strait transfer of farming secrets likely poses a threat to the 540,000 Taiwanese employed in the sector.
As Taiwan is covered to two-thirds with non-arable mountains, agriculture on the island has always relied on a generous shot of innovation. The former colonial power Japan, which mainly used Taiwan as an agricultural base to supply food to Japan’s population, introduced elaborated irrigation, new seeds, fertilizers and crop reporting systems. Illustrating how much emphasis is still being placed on the development of advanced agricultural technology, it is said that in Taiwan, it’s the farming sector that employs more Ph.Ds than any other.
Taiwanese R&D personnel has been credited for the breeding of superior plant and animal varieties, break-throughs in high-volume production, as well as bringing long-distance maritime transport to perfection. To put it in figures, accounted for over the last decade were 342 technology transfers, 100 plant breeders’ rights (PBR), 282 patents and 32 trademarks – all this for a good deal helped by tax payers’ money.
Yet by pocketing Taiwanese expertise, China seems taking an undue shortcut on its way to upgrade its own agricultural sector. China’s agricultural R&D has traditionally been far behind Taiwan but since the opening of cross-Strait trade, sensitive techniques have been transferred. Seeds and shoots are smuggled, and Taiwanese R&D personnel as well as farmers are headhunted only to end up in one of the Taiwan Farmers Pioneer Parks. There, land is provided, tax incentives and assistance are given, and joint ventures are encouraged. About 70 to 80 percent of the products to be found in the parks are believed to have systematically been imported from Taiwan.
“The actual impact the technology transfer has on Taiwan’s economy has yet to be illustrated by statistical data. However, it is clear that Taiwanese farmers’ competitiveness takes a hard hit in overseas markets and that products copied in China are being sold back to Taiwan, negatively affecting farmers’ business also here”, said Kuo Hua-jen, a professor at National Taiwan University’s Department of Agriculture, in an interview with Asia Times Online.
According to Kuo, it’s the Taiwanese government that deserves a good share of the blame.
“Although it can hardly be prevented completely, something can be done about the flow’s speed. The rapid outflow of Taiwan’s agricultural technology to China is clearly the result of the Taiwanese government’s lax attitude”, Kuo said.
In June 2010, Taipei and Beijing signed the “Cross-Strait Agreement on Intellectual Property Right Protection and Cooperation”, which allows some major agricultural products from Taiwan to be granted PBR in China. However, according to Kuo, undue transfer is still rampant as both sides’ items and scope of the protection differ. Kuo pointed out that a great number of important Taiwanese products are not yet categorized as protected by China, ranging from cucumbers to mango, from ginger to poinsettia. He also remarked on what he says is yet another major flaw in the agreement.
“China [includes seeds but] doesn’t include harvested goods. And neither covered are products derived from the varieties bred. This seriously infringes Taiwanese PBR”, he brought into account.
Kuo furthermore explained that the intellectual property right agreement can only protect newly developed products from Chinese infringement, and that in terms of crop production, while it might be possible to protect technology by patent, less so hard-won experience obtained through decades of trial and error.
Hinting at the likes of former Council of Agriculture (COA) Minister Paul Sun, who now tellingly functions as a senior consultant to one of the very Taiwan Farmers Pioneer Parks in question, Kuo accused the Taiwanese government of turning a blind eye to civil servants privately relocating original species.
“Based on national interests, prohibiting the outflow of species is only natural, especially if varieties developed by the public sector are taken away by other countries. Otherwise, both Taiwan’s taxpayers and farmers are harmed”, Kuo charged.
One example frequently cited by the Taiwanese media on how far China has come by exploiting cross-Strait transfers of agricultural know-how is the growing of grapes in Guangxi province. There, grape growing had previously been viewed as unfeasible but after Taiwan-developed agricultural technology had been introduced that allows for grape harvests twice per year, Guangxi’s agricultural sector has been progressing on leaps and bounds and the province has since become China’s major grape-producing region. And, apparently, the success story of the shadily obtained Taiwanese know-how didn’t end here as the Chinese in July with some fanfare took credit for having introduced two of the “Guangxi” grape strains to Lang Son, which is Vietnam’s province just across the border.
What all Taiwanese experts and officials have in common in their assessments is the acknowledgment that the transfers are hard to control. It has all along been pointed out that Taiwan’s relatively low-paid farmers are more than willing to sell their vital technologies for a few thousand US dollars to China. As possible measures, the developing of DNA identification technology has been talked about, and on September 26, Council of Agriculture (COA) Minister Chen Wu-hsiung declared that measures have been implemented “to prohibit the transfer of sensitive techniques to China and restrict visits by R&D personnel in these skills to China”, however, without specifying. Other demands from within the sector call for a several-year-long monopoly for new varieties after their application for mutual protection.
But even if transfers seem somewhat difficult to avoid, there are some factors that come to Taiwan’s farming sector’s help.
“Fortunately, produce has a local nature; if the same seed is planted at another spot, the fruit won’t be as tasty”, weighed in Hu Sheng-Cheng, an economist at Academia Sinicia. Hu also said that many people worry about mainland Chinese produce being polluted by pesticide residues so that they are willing to pay more for Taiwanese-grown products.
“However, as scrupulous businesspeople can still simply tag Chinese goods with a Taiwanese label, as it happens often with Chinese-made textiles, many scholars push for the implementation of a produce tracking system”, Hu said.
Wang Teng Kun, an economist at Taiwan’s National Chung Cheng University and deputy director of the ruling, Beijing-friendly Kuomintang’s (KMT) Youth Department, played down the issue somewhat, putting it in a different light. This is not surprising as news coverage on China hurting Taiwan’s farmers is immensely beneficial to the opposition anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which traditionally draws major support from the sector.
“As Taiwan’s farming industry makes big business with mainland China [exports totaled over US$400 million in 2010; in June, the COA announced an 44 percent increase year-on-year], it’s only natural that techniques are imitated”, Wang said.
He furthermore emphasized that similar issues occur not only between China and Taiwan but also elsewhere.
“If products are copied, a complaint with the WTO can be filed. The worst what such a move could bring about are trade retaliations.”