An interview with Dr. Jong-I Hu of Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture
Home to 23 million people, the island of Taiwan is best known as a manufacturing powerhouse. Rapid industrialization propelled the country’s economy to “Asian Tiger” status in the 60s and 70s, and today the technology sector is flourishing. By contrast, agriculture is a small industry, employing roughly 4% of Taiwan’s workforce (Taiwan Semiconductor alone employs 6%) and contributing less than 2% of GDP in 2019. The sector faces many issues. Indeed, as one of the most mountainous states on earth, Taiwan has relatively little land is available for cultivation. The country’s self-sufficiency rate stands at just 35%: a figure that President Tsai Ing-wen has said must be improved. These problems are exacerbated by inefficiencies in production, but also distribution, with as much of 40% of fruit and vegetables wasted enroute to market. Like many countries around the world, Taiwan is acutely aware of the risks that climate change and fluctuating oil prices—as well as crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic—pose to food security, and the government is pushing ahead with a multi-faceted approach to develop a resilient and sustainable agricultural sector.
Spearheading Taiwan’s agricultural reforms is Dr. Jong-I Hu, who assumed his position as Director of the Agriculture and Food Department in the Executive Yuan’s Council of Agriculture in 2018. Born in 1958 into a devout Christian family in the lush westerly county of Tainan, a fond childhood memory of Dr. Hu’s is feasting on the abundant and delicious tropical fruit that this area is so well-known for. An outstanding student, Dr. Hu achieved the top score in the civil service exam while still a fourth-year student at the prestigious National Taiwan University, paving the way for a prestigious career in government. Following graduate study, he joined the Department of Agriculture and Forestry at the Taiwan Provincial Government, and later the Council of Agriculture. Foreseeing that its Japan experts were due to retire and wishing to maintain strong relations with the country, the Council sponsored Dr. Hu to pursue a PhD in agricultural economics at the University of Tokyo in the 1990s. He is a fluent Japanese speaker and has since served as Deputy Leader of the Economic Affairs Section of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Japan, and more recently has been working to establish Japan as an important export market for Taiwanese produce.
Chia-Mei Yang spoke to Dr. Hu about his department’s most recent initiatives and his own philosophy on how the agricultural economy, land and people can co-exist and prosper—a question that lies at the very heart of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Sustainable food production: Going organic and improving transparency
For Dr. Hu, organic agriculture is the future. Not only is it key to sustainability of the food supply but also to developing consumer trust in domestic products. In 2018, the Taiwanese government passed the Organic Agriculture Promotion Law, which stipulates that an environmentally-friendly approach to agriculture and sustainable use of resources is essential in maintaining healthy water and soil, ecology and biodiversity, as well as to protect animal welfare and consumer rights. Dr. Hu explains that the Council of Agriculture has sought to encourage such practices by offering subsidies to farmers who make the switch. With just 1.9% of the total arable land employed in this kind of agriculture (with certified organic farms comprising just over 10,000 hectares) as of the end of 2020, organic farming has yet to take off in Taiwan, but these incentives are helping it move in the right direction. What’s more, Taiwan has signed bilateral equivalence agreements on the trade of organic products with Japan, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US, so that Taiwanese producers can export organic produce barrier-free to foreign markets. With Taiwan’s participation in the international certification system for organic produce, the business opportunities are only expected to grow.
Creating transparency around the origins of Taiwan’s agricultural produce and ensuring consumer protection has been a priority for Dr. Hu, and the Council for Agriculture has been working to promote the expansion of the Traceable Agricultural Product (TAP) system of certification. Introduced in the late 2000s, producers that meet the standards as set by Taiwan Good Agricultural Practice (TGAP), itself modelled after Japan’s, are eligible for special labelling. Consumers can simply scan the QR code of any TAP-registered food item to find out exactly where it comes from. The comprehensive TGAP standard encompasses all aspects of food production, including drug safety (for example, use of antibiotics in livestock farming), environmental hygiene, but also the sustainability of production methods used. The government is now in the marketing stage of this project, and among its initiatives a reward scheme aimed at restaurants and stores that procure their ingredients from TAP suppliers. These efforts have paid off, with the number of certified suppliers more than doubling between 2013-2019 and demand for their products almost tripling over the same five-year period.
Taiwan’s granaries and innovative approaches to self-sufficiency
The ability to transport produce across the world cheaply and quickly has contributed to a thriving global trade that also comes with considerable drawbacks. This issue of particular concern to Dr. Hu. Taiwan has a self-sufficiency rate of just 35%, and he quotes a shocking statistic: 99% of grain sold in Taiwan is currently imported from overseas. Not only does this create an enormous carbon footprint, but the addition of chemicals required to preserve produce over long distances is also worrisome. In 2016 the Council of Agriculture launched the Big Granary Project to encourage farmers to diversify their crop and begin to substitute imports. One way they have done this is to make use of the existing cropping system and improve its efficiency. For example, farmers accustomed to a low-performing second harvest are given guidance as to an alternative grain with a better yield. These producers are encouraged to adopt organic farming practices and acquire TAP certification. 90% of imported soybeans are GMO and Dr. Hu hopes that the increasingly discerning Taiwanese consumer will opt for high-quality, non-GMO, locally-grown beans with a low carbon footprint.
Dr. Hu observes that there have been other unexpected benefits to crop diversification too. In 2018 the government’s Food and Agriculture Agency began piloting a project with the Agricultural Improvement Centre in Taoyuan, close to Taipei, to convert rice production (which is in excess) to soybeans in a rotation system. Not only has this wet and dry paddy rotation saved precious water resources, but also reduced the risks of pests and disease. These measures, a combination of a reduction in pesticide and fertilizer use coupled with the introduction of mechanized chain management, are proven to help farmers increase their income and make the agricultural sector more resilient.
Japan as an inspiration: Cold-chain distribution and farmer’s markets
As a PhD student in Japan, Dr. Hu was impressed by the country’s management of quality control and food waste. He gives the example of Japan’s sound and well-established cold chain system: Their refrigerated trucks ensure newly-harvested produce sufficiently cooled within 30 minutes, assuring safety and quality, and minimizing loss. Dr. Hu also makes the case for enabling direct delivery of produce from the place of origin to consumers. For instance, almost 100% of products in the Japanese flower and plant market are sold off in advance via an online auctioning system (some 60% of Japanese agricultural products are auctioned in this way), and this efficient system simultaneously prevents oversupply and generates savings on transportation and packaging. Now Taiwan is making optimization of the cold chain in agriculture a priority, and Dr. Hu is pleased to report that this year funding for this purpose has been secured as part of the Executive Yuan’s budget. We can expect for farmers’ incomes to go up, but also the quality of agricultural produce and its competitiveness in the global market to also improve.
Farmers markets are flourishing in Japan and Dr. Hu says Taiwan would do well to emulate this trend. As one of the most densely populated countries on earth, he says, in effect the site of production is also the site of consumption. Encouraging consumers to “go local” removes all the unnecessary costs associated with food transportation and potential spoilage. What’s more, the journey from farm-to-table is made more transparent than ever. Being in such close proximity to their customers and with their reputations at stake, Hu jokes, farmers wouldn’t even dream of being spotted spraying pesticides on their crops! But such markets bring other important, non-economic benefits too: they bring the community together, which is increasingly rare in today’s urbanized and globalized society. In Taiwan there are now 13 farmer markets, 35 michi no eki-style local produce stores and 55 small rural cooperatives—and counting. In the cities there are examples of such markets cooperating with major supermarket brands to make it even easier for people to purchase locally-grown fruits and vegetables.
Taiwan and Japan: Cultivating goodwill through school lunches
Dr. Hu says there is room for Taiwan and Japan to cooperate, especially in light of their common history. Where Taiwan has an edge over Japan is in the production of tropical fruit, including bananas. But Dr. Hu saw that the market for Taiwanese bananas in the country was limited due to competition from lower-priced bananas produced in countries like the Philippines. He decided to try a unique approach: why not craft a campaign to target Japanese schools and create opportunities for intercultural exchange? Today, Taiwan-grown bananas are a staple of children’s bento boxes in elementary schools throughout Toyama, Shizuoka, Ibaraki and Mie prefectures. In their classes, these children learn about the history, geography and culture of Japan and Taiwan through food, discussing the mutual problems that the small farmers of these two island nations face, including how to compete with countries with a large agricultural output, as well as how to respond to issues such as global warming. In the future, Dr. Hu says, they hope to also begin introducing children to another iconic Taiwanese fruit and symbol of mid-autumn festival: the pomelo. Solutions like this which are designed to add value and solve multiple problems rather than simply suppress costs arguably offer a more effective way of advancing the SDGs.
Delivering peace of mind: Making local produce accessible in a pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way that people shop, with vulnerable sectors of the population opting to avoid going out grocery shopping completely, relying on a number of popular delivery platforms to bring supplies to their homes instead. Dr. Hu recognized that during a public health crisis it was more important than ever for people to access healthy, safe, local produce. The Agriculture and Food Administration worked together with suppliers at Taoyuan City Farmers’ Association, Hepu Fruit and Vegetable Production and Marketing Cooperative, and the delivery platform foodpanda to bring organic products to customers’ doors. The fruit and vegetables are already processed for hassle-free cooking and provided in appropriately-sized portions to minimize kitchen waste: a solution that will continue to have appeal among busy urban commuters long after the pandemic is over.
Creating new value in Taiwanese tea
With its mountainous terrain and humid climate, Taiwan produces some of the finest teas in the world. In order to promote Taiwan’s unique tea culture, in 2014 the Agriculture and Food Administration created the United Tea Estates Enterprise (www.utee.tw), which established a Michelin-style ranking for the country’s most outstanding tea estates. They also guide new tea farmers through the production, manufacturing and sales process, and advise on how to create additional value through local, cultural experiences and tourism, as well as branding and packaging. As of 2020, 33 estates were participating in the project. Dr. Hu recognizes the power of multimedia to both encourage innovations in tea drinking among young Taiwanese and also cultivate interest among domestic and foreign travelers in tea and in visiting tea farms. Last year, the project held “The Top Ten in Taiwanese Specialty Tea Travel” design competition, as well as a short film festival. In the future, Dr. Hu explains, they hope to conduct a similar campaign for Taiwanese wineries in order to increase the value of Taiwanese rice and fruit.
In concluding this interview, Dr. Hu emphasized that the job of the Agriculture and Food Administration is to ensure stable food production and prices, as well as guarantee the safety and quality of produce. It is clear through the policies that he has advocated for in the last several years that he recognizes the importance of agriculture’s role in building a healthy and sustainable society for generations to come. We look forward to seeing how these pioneering measures progress in the years ahead and what new opportunities emerge for Taiwan’s farmers.
Review of Taiwan’s Food Security Strategy, FFTC Agricultural Policy Platform: https://ap.fftc.org.tw/article/2570
Promoting a water-conserving, high-yield soybean rotation system: https://www.afa.gov.tw/cht/index.php?code=list&flag=detail&ids=307&article_id=48810
Exporting Taiwan bananas to Japan: https://www.agriharvest.tw/archives/13149