Note to Taiwanese Farmers: Face the Customers, not Competitors

Not a single day goes by without seeing at least one update on newspapers regarding the ECFA (Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement), a proposed trade agreement between Taiwan and China. Everybody in Taiwan has an opinion when it comes to relationships with China, and for ECFA, each person is juggling three ideas in his head: (1) What is ECFA? (2) I welcome it. (3) No, I am against it. People are learning and forming opinions at the same time. No wonder the situation is messy.

Political implications aside, I agree with the idea of making an economic or cultural bridge between the two countries. Any communication ultimately benefits both sides; nobody says lack of communication is the recipe for a great relationship.

I was discussing this issue with my Chinese teacher who told me that the loudest protest is coming from domestic (Taiwanese) farmers. They are worried about competition from an onslaught of cheap imported foods. She was worried too whether Taiwanese farm products will disappear from the supermarket if cheap—and allegedly less organic—vegetables from China flood the shelves.

Surely due to the lobbying activities from the farmers, the Taiwanese government decided not to include farm products in the first stage of ECFA. I think these farmers are fighting the wrong fight. First, obviously, refusing imports from China also means that they cannot sell their products to the biggest potential market in the world. Well, they know it.

But what about this second point: It is Taiwanese consumers who decide which products are desirable, not Chinese exporters. Thus, if the Taiwanese farmers really want to protect their home turf, they should be lobbying toward their consumers, not the government.

The farmers should work with restaurant owners, specifically. Supermarkets are fine; many Taiwanese housewives, including my teacher, will choose Taiwanese “safer and more tasty” vegetables over Chinese ones, and Taiwanese vegetables are already inexpensive in the first place. But in the cutthroat environment of the restaurant business, cost is everything; the owners will surely choose the cheapest options available. The customers will have no choice, or will not care.

Those farmers may cry out that the problem is Chinese food production; it’s not safe, it’s not fair, etc. Dream on – their real “enemies” are their own peers. I bet the inevitable liberation of food import and export between China will shake the Taiwanese farm industry hard, but it will work for the better. Farmers, in the best scenario, will ditch their old style of depending on government subsidies and protection measurement and start trying to find a better way to appeal to consumers.

Am I being too harsh? I am from a country where the price of the most important aliment, rice, is four times that of international standards, thanks to the government trying to “protect” our food sufficiency, and, well, the biggest group of political donors. And each time I hear complaints from Japanese rice farmers on the TV or on newspapers, I mutter “Screw it.”