Dilemma Facing the Promotion of Organic Agriculture in Taiwan and Strategies for Coping with Recent Laws and Regulations(Taiwan)

Yi-Shan Cheng

The Council of Agricultural Affairs (hereinafter, the “COA”) announced the most recent subsidy program, which is the Guidelines on Subsidies for Organic and Environmentally Friendly Farming (hereinafter, the “Subsidy Guidelines”), for organic agriculture on May 2017. Under the Subsidy Guidelines, the recipients of the subsidies are greatly expanded with the inclusion of all farmlands which have passed the certification under the Agricultural Production and Certification Law and which produce organic agricultural foods (including the transitional phase). In addition, farmlands actually cultivated and operated by farmers registered with the environmentally friendly farming promotion organizations examined and recognized by the COA (hereinafter, the “Friendly Cultivated Farmlands”) are also included as eligible targets of subsidies.

These Subsidy Guidelines highlight the current key issues facing the promotion of organic agriculture by including the Friendly Cultivated Farmlands into the scope of subsidy. The dilemma facing the promotion of organic agriculture and strategies for coping with recent laws and regulations are explored step by step below, beginning with the development history and definition of environmentally friendly farming and organic agriculture in reference to the draft Statute for Promoting Organic Agriculture and the draft Organic Agriculture Law introduced by the Youngsun Cultural and Educational Foundation and the COA, respectively.

Before Japan’s colonization of Taiwan, farming conducted in Taiwan was natural farming and was relatively friendly to the natural environment. During the era of Japan’s colonization of Taiwan, agricultural science and technologies were introduced. With the rising food demands after the Second World War, large scale use of chemical fertilizers, chemical pesticides and mechanized farming began in various countries, and Taiwan went with the trend by introducing high yield and highly efficient agriculture. The farming method in this era was known as the conventional farming method. The conventional farming method brought pollution and damage to the environment and natural ecology. Therefore, environmentally friendly farming methods, which are consistent with sustainable development of ecology, caught on. The term “organic agriculture” gradually emerged thereafter. In the development history of organic agriculture, the original tenet was to conduct farming in manners friendly to the environment without the use of chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides typical of the conventional farming. Judging from the definition contained in legal provisions, Point 2 of the Guidelines for Examining and Recognizing Environmentally Friendly Farming Promotion Organizations enacted on May 5, 2017 provides: “Institutions (entities), schools, juristic persons or organizations whose farming methods meet the following principles may apply to the Commission to be examined and recognized as environmentally friendly farming organizations: (1) protecting water and soil resources, ecological environment and biodiversity and promoting agriculturally friendly environment and sustainable utilization of resources; and (2) not using synthetic substances or genetically engineered bio-organisms and their products in the course of agricultural production.” This confirms the principle of environmentally friendly farming, which emphasizes environmentally friendly and sustainable utilization of resources, avoidance of chemical products and genetically engineered bio-organisms and products. Since there is no definite definition of organic agriculture under the current laws and regulations, reference can be made to the definition of organic agriculture under Article 6, Subparagraph 1 of the draft Statute for Promoting Organic Agriculture and Article 3, Subparagraph 3 of the Organic Agriculture Law, which define organic agriculture as “the agriculture based on principles of ecological balance and nutritional circulation without application of chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides and without the use of any genetically engineering bio-organisms and their products to produce farm crops, forest, aquatic or stock-raising produces.” Based on the above definition of organic agriculture and of environmental friendly farming methods, both seek to countervail conventional farming methods in an attempt to establish farming methods which achieve balanced and sustainable development of ecology by stressing that chemical pesticides, chemical fertilizers and genetically engineered bio-organisms should not be used. Both have the same definition and are the same concept.

Since environmentally friendly farming and organic agriculture have the same original tenet, definition and concept, why did the COA focus its promotional efforts almost entirely on “organic agriculture” and why did the new Subsidy Guidelines promulgated this time specifically include the Friendly Cultivated Farmlands in the scope of subsidy?

To answer the above questions, it is necessary to consider the promotion status of organic agriculture in Taiwan first. In 2007, the Agricultural Production and Certification Law officially included organic agricultural produces in the scope of relevant laws and regulations. As of the end of 2016 after years of promotion, the cultivation area of organic agriculture was 6,784 hectares, accounting to 0.8% of the total cultivation area in the farmlands in Taiwan. Although the promotion status of organic agriculture in Taiwan still seems decent as compared with other countries in Asia, such as 0.3% in Japan, 0.4% in China, 0.4% in India, 0.5% in Vietnam, 0.5% in Indonesia, 0.8% in the Philippines and 0.9% in South Korea, still the average growth rate in the planation area of organic farmlands, which was 26% during 2008 through 2012, has been greatly reduced to an average annual growth rate of only 3.8% since 2013. The Agriculture and Food Agency deduced several major factors (compare the analysis of an author by the name of Chung-chieh Huang from the Agriculture and Food Agency), which are summarized as three aspects, namely (1) economic dimension, (2) inspection criteria and (3) background environment, for discussion. With respect to background environment, strict organic inspection standards, standards for heavy metal concentration in farmlands and the water resources as used and restrictions on available materials constrain organic operation conditions of farmers. In addition to the COA, environmental agencies are also required to jointly engage in environmental surveillance and improvement. With respect to economic factors, such as reduced yields in transitional periods, reduced income of famers, organic certification and inspection costs in the amount of NT$20,000 to NT$36,000 each year, and constraints on organic distribution channels, these issues can be mitigated through government subsidies and procurement. In comparison, issues relating to inspection standards are more difficult to tackle. These Subsidy Guidelines are believed to bring a solution to the dilemma in the promotion of organic agriculture caused by the “inspection standards.”

In 2007, the COA once sought to emulate the practices of the US by relaxing the concentration of residual organic agricultural pesticides to 5% of the safety value. However, this effort was subsequently abandoned due to opposition from the private sector. Currently, Article 13 of the Agricultural Production and Certification Law, which provides that “chemical pesticides, chemical fertilizers, animal medicine or other chemicals shall not be used for organic produces and organic processed products,” stipulates that chemical pesticides “shall not be used.” Although it is not specifically stipulated that “there shall be no residual chemical pesticides” in organic produces or processed products, still the Requirements for Investigation, Sanctions and Penalties for Organic Produces and Processed Products promulgated by the COA in 2009 provide that organic produces or processed products found to have residual pesticides or chemical additives shall be deemed in violation punishable by a fine of NT$30,000 to NT$150,000. This is what is commonly known as the “zero detection” requirement for organic produces. Although such inspection standards are favorable to the consumers, they pose a major dilemma to the development of organic agriculture. With narrow land areas in Taiwan, conventional and organic farms are often mingled. If contamination happens after the chemical pesticides applied in neighboring farmlands drift to organic farmlands through wind and water, trace residual chemicals will be detected in contaminated organic produces. As a result, organic farmers will be sanctioned. Such circumstances are particularly severe in the western part of Taiwan. This is also the reason why organic plantation areas are mostly located in the eastern part of Taiwan.

As previously stated, although organic agriculture and environmentally friendly farming are the same concept, still the “zero detection” requirement mingles “organic agriculture for balanced and sustainable operation of ecology” with “food safety to ensure the safety of consumption by limiting the residual amounts of pesticides and heavy metals.” In fact, organic agriculture and food safety are concepts of two different dimensions. Organic agriculture is not originated from the need to provide agricultural produces without residual pesticides to the people. Therefore, although most countries require that chemical pesticides should not be used in organic agriculture, still they set a tolerable level in the environmental and background value for chemical pesticides for organic produces. For example, 5% is the maximum tolerance for residual pesticides in the US, while 10% is the upper limit for the permitted residual chemicals in Australia. Although there is no specific legal provision for this in the European Union and Japan, there is no specific provision that stipulates that “the concentration of the residual prohibited substances in organic products shall be zero,” either. In Taiwan’s environment of organic agriculture, which is prone to contamination from adjacent farms, the “zero detection” requirement has become a major reason for the stagnation in the promotion of organic agriculture. Therefore, under the philosophy of sustainable cycles, cultivation of “environmentally friendly cultivation,” which has the same rationale as organic agriculture, is also one of the possible solutions.

With respect to the promotional dilemma of organic agriculture posed by the “inspection standards,” the establishment of “dedicated organic agriculture zones” under the draft Statute for Promoting Organic Agriculture and the draft Organic Agriculture Law may bring opportunities for reducing typical contamination of organic farms:

Article 9, Paragraph 1 of the draft Statute for Promoting Organic Agriculture provides: “A local competent authority shall propose stepwise establishment and development plans for organic agriculture zones according to its local long-term organic agriculture development plan. Its planning and construction shall meet the requirements for sustainable ecology and shall not be implemented without the approval of the central competent authority.” 」

Article 6, Paragraph 1 of the draft Organic Agriculture Law provides: “The competent authority in a municipality under the direct jurisdiction of the Executive Yuan or county (city) may set up dedicated organic agriculture zones, depending on the conditions of the areas under its jurisdiction, and encourage their establishment by the private sector.” 」

In particular, Article 9, Paragraph 2 of the draft Statute for Promoting Organic Agriculture further stipulates that acts detrimental to organic production in a dedicated organic agriculture zone may be prohibited. Such provision should be recognized for contributing to the realization of dedicated organic agriculture zones.

Moreover, Article 11, Paragraph 3 of the draft Statute for Promoting Organic Agriculture mentions that “if an organic farm or produces produced thereon is contaminated, the contaminator shall be liable for their restoration and damages.” The provision is well-intentioned since it seeks to compensate the losses of organic farmers from the inability to conduct organic farming and the failure of products to be sold as organic products. However, the biggest concern of this provision is probably the issue of “burden of proof,” which is difficult to assume to substantiate the sources of contamination. In 2016, the Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine (hereinafter, the “BAPHIQ”) under the COA proposed an “agricultural pesticide model,” which may be a way out of this dilemma. In reference to the mist drift simulation software in the US, the BAPHIQ established a model suitable for assessing the drift patterns of agricultural pesticides in Taiwan, using wind speed, mist size and speed, spray height, temperature and relative humidity as determination factors to determine if contamination is caused by any drift from adjacent farms by considering residual pesticides, types of pesticides, drift distance, etc. If this technology can serve as an accommodating measure for organic farming, more liabilities may be imposed on farmers applying chemical pesticides in conventional agriculture and may provide evidence to substantiate that organic products are indeed contaminated by adjacent farms rather than application of agricultural pesticides.

Although both the draft Statute for Promoting Organic Agriculture proposed by the private sector and the COA’s draft Organic Agriculture Law are still at the deliberation and discussion stage, still both will surely move towards the direction of gradually increasing the subsidy budget for organic agriculture to gradually phase out conventional farming methods. Under the circumstances that organic agriculture is confronted with the “zero detection” requirement, fostering “environmentally friendly farming” and creating dedicated organic agriculture zones are both worthy solutions. However, under the original tenet of protecting natural environment, whether it is still necessary to burden organic products with the mission of “zero detection” of agricultural pesticides or chemical additives and whether the background inspection value can be relaxed are worthy of continued discussions.

It is also worth mentioning that chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides, which used to be deemed advanced technologies for the high yields and plantation efficiency they have secured, are being replaced by non-chemical and non-synthetic organic compost, microbial fertilizers which increase nitrogen contents in soil through micro-organisms that contribute to nitrogen fixation, and microbial pesticides which leverage insect sex pheromone to trap and kill pests. Microbial fertilizers and microbial pesticides are indubitably emerging technologies under the trend of organic agriculture/environmentally friendly farming. The development of such new technologies enables farmers to control the fertility of soil and control pests more efficiently without using chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides. This has positive impact on crop yields and plantation efficiency. Therefore, the author believes that the development of such new technologies may be regarded as a factor that affects the promotion of organic agriculture and should be included, along with the above-mentioned (1) economic dimension, (2) inspection criteria and (3) background environment, as factors that affect the development of organic agriculture/environmentally friendly farming and developed along with promotional efforts.