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Chen Wu-hsiung has a vision of toxin-free Taiwan
Organic farming is an important strategy for better agricultural development in the future, says minister
By Hungfu Hsueh
Agricultural Minister Chen Wu-hsiung (陳武雄) listed three main objectives as his agricultural policy when he assumed his post on May 20 earlier this year.
The three objectives are to have farmers earning more than NT$1 million per year, to spend NT$150 billion on the development of farming households allowing country villages to flourish, and finally to have Taiwan become a toxin-free agricultural island.
According to the Cabinet-level Council of Agriculture, "toxin-free agriculture" aims to produce safe and healthy agricultural products, with efforts mainly devote on two fronts. One is to have more crops to undergo the food-safety inspection program "Good Agricultural Practice," while the other is to further promote the practice of organic agriculture.
The "Good Agricultural Practice" (GAP) labeling, also known as "Chi Yuan Pu" in local dialect, is a certification program used to label agricultural products which have passed a safety examination for chemical residue of pesticides and fertilizers. Products that attain the GAP label can be considered to be "good" agricultural products.
GAP labeling was first put into practice in 1994 by Taiwan Provincial Government's Agriculture and Forest Department in a wake of encouraging farmers to produce vegetable and fruit which satisfied the government standard on chemical residue. The system later was also adopted by the Cabinet-level COA as a measure for inspecting the chemical residue on agricultural products.
GAP is a concept had already been widely discussed and promoted for the last few decades around the world, and many different definitions and interpretations have been applied to various aspects of agriculture by various organizations. For the COA, GAP refers to raising crops under the most natural conditions that are practicable, reducing damage to the natural environment caused by planting crops, applying a reasonable dosage of pesticide to prevent damage by either insects or plant disease, and harvesting the crop within the defined time without unwanted residue of pesticides.
To be labeled as GAP products, farmers first need to join a production team affiliated to a local farmers' association, township office or cooperative association, as the application for GAP is not open to individual farmers. The reason behind only accepting registered production teams to apply for GAP labelling is the hope that farmers could undertake collective responsibility to safeguard the reputation of their production team.
To be labeled as a GAP crop, the production team first needs to provide the crop's complete pesticide/fertilizer record, and also the chemical residue report as tested for by the COA's Taiwan Agricultural Chemicals and Toxic Substances Research Institute (TACTRI), then send the application to the local agricultural research and extension stations for an initial review.
After the initial review, the local government, COA's central Taiwan office, TACTRI and local agricultural research and extension station will conduct a joint final review to decide whether to approve the team's GAP application.
Once the reviews are passed, the local county government will sign a one-year contract with the production team authorizing the use of the GAP label on the crops. During the one year period, the county government will conduct inspections on the crop's chemical residue and any practices in viololation of the GAP will result in suspension of the label.
If exceeding dosage of chemical was found on the crop, the production team will face a six month suspension of GAP label, and if illegal pesticide was found on the crop, the production team will face one-year suspension of using GAP label. If the production team rejected to undergo the inspection on pesticide test, the production team will also face one-year suspension on being labeled as GAP crops.
Vegetables and fruits bearing a GAP label get a better price and a better market response. As of now registered GAP production teams number 1850 with over 25,000 farmers, with around 800 teams growing vegetables and around 1050 teams farming fruits.
The 1850 GAP production teams account for 40 percent of the total production teams in Taiwan, and their production accounts for around 11 percent of the total amount of agricultural crops in Taiwan. The COA is hoping that GAP certified crops can increase to 12 percent of total crops. A full list of GAP production teams can be found on the TACTRI website (http://www.tactri.gov.tw/htdocs/serv/gapteam.asp).
In addition to the GAP program, organic agriculture is the other main focus of the COA's bid toward a "toxin-free agricultural island."
In 1996 Taiwan Provincial Agriculture and Forest Department began to introduce organic farming to Taiwan, and at that time only a few farmers were selected to conduct experiments on growing organic crops.
In 1997 the COA had all local agricultural research and extension stations introduce organic agriculture to local farmers. Farmers interested in organic farming can go to workshops at all local agricultural research centers to learn knowledge related to organic farming. After a series of classes and study, the farmers can begin to produce their organic products.
One important part of organic agriculture is its verification process, as one needs to be approved as a truly authentic "organic" product free from chemical pesticides/fertilizers. From 1997 -2000, the COA had local agricultural research and extension station examine the crops for elements of pesticide or fertilizer and issue certifications to approved crops. However, due to limited resources and manpower, the COA passed on the verification work to the private sector, and four private examining centers now issue organic certification to organic products islandwide.
In 1996, Taiwan had only 159 hectares of organic farmland, and in early 2008 the total farmland for organic farming totaled around 2,200 hectares. The COA is hoping to increase this to 2,500 hectares in total by the end of this year.
The limited growth on the organic farmland means the practice of organic farming is not an easy job. Many farmers were deterred from practicing organic farming once they learned that the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers was not permitted. Farmers worry that organic farming might produce only limited amount of crops with stagnated sales. The agricultural research and extension stations around the island however now are all capable of adopting biological technology to cope with possible insect pests and plant diseases.
The OA has also enacted other measures to promote organic farming, such as subsidies for the certification fee on the test of soil and crops. The COA has commissioned National Ilan University to set up the "Organic Agricultural Informational Center" website to provide all available resource and contact information for organic farmers, and one online e-shop is also selling farmers' organic products. The government will also begin to fine any unlicensed organic product found on the market from January 29, 2009 and to offer better protection for genuine organic products.
The COA is also planning to set up an exclusive zone for organic farming with a minimum size of 30-50 hectares. For Minister Chen, the establishment of a special "exclusive zone" seems to be the only way out of the current impasses of the limited growth in organic farming.
"Organic farming will hit a dead end if exclusive zones are not set up. Many farmers have complained that their efforts in farming organically are suddenly destroyed by a gust of wind bringing in pesticide spread over neighboring non-organic farmland. To solve such problems, the establishment of an exclusive zone is inevitable, and also a buffer zone needs to exist between the organic farmland and the normal farmland," said Minister Chen.
Minister Chen's planning policy "small landlord, big tenant" will also help in part to assist the development of organic farming. The policy is based on those farmers who own only small pieces of farmland jointly leasing out their land to a big tenant to conduct organic farming (or traditional farming) in order to save on the cost of human labor and improve the efficiency of farminmg.
Minister Chen considers the poison-free agricultural island not simply to be a a slogan but an important strategy for a better agricultural development in the future. And now the question is if he can receive the support of the whole society to work together towards that same goal.