Taiwan is generally regarded as a First World country and is one of the world’s foremost industrial and trading nations. Yet, not so long ago—more precisely, almost 70 years ago—that was not the case.
In September 1949, Taiwan—christened Formosa by the colonizing Portuguese—was just one of the larger islands off the Chinese mainland. Then in the following month, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shak and his Nationalist army, beaten by the Communist troops led by Mao Tse-tung, crossed the Formosa Strait and established a government on Taiwan. Thus was the island-state born.
The Chiang group came to an island that was relatively small and had minimal natural resources. Taiwan is largely mountainous, and whatever cultivable land it has is found along the island’s coastal areas. The total area available for agriculture is just over 200,000 hectares—that wasn’t much land by any standard.
Realizing that the first order of business was to provide enough food for his beleaguered army, the Generalissimo decreed that the highest priority, after the strengthening of Taiwan’s defenses, was the development of the island’s agriculture. Whatever land and water existed were to be used in the most efficient manner possible. All the necessary agricultural production inputs besides water—especially credit, agricultural extension and marketing assistance—were to be made available by the government to ensure the highest possible yield per hectare of land. It was a case of, literally, all hands to the flow, and the government was closely monitoring the progress of the farmers. It is not out of place to mention here that some of Taiwan’s agricultural officials and technicians were sent to this country to enroll in courses at the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB).
It was not long before the single-mindedness and determination of the Nationalist government began to bear fruit. Self-sufficiency in rice, corn, vegetables and other agricultural products was soon attained, and Taiwan no longer needed food aid from friendly countries, particularly the Communists’ arch-enemy, the US.
Not only that. Since it now had enough rice and other agricultural products to feed the Taiwanese people, and because Taiwan badly needed foreign exchange, the island-state embarked on export trade in agricultural products, especially rice. Taiwan became, and remain, an important exporter of rice.
That surely is not bad for a country that had very little cultivable land, had limited water resources, had a start-from-scratch administrative infrastructure and was short of foreign exchange. Since it first attained rice self-sufficiency, Taiwan has not had to import a single grain of that.
Comparisons are odious, but in view of what is happening in this country today—and of how unstable the rice situation is—a comparison between the agricultural experiences of Taiwan and the Philippine is both inevitable and instinctive.
This country is one of the world’s biggest importers of rice—total imports will probably be 500,000 metric tons in 2018—despite the 3,000,000 hectares of land devoted to the cultivation of rice and corn, this country’s numerous rivers with large water volume, its centuries-long tradition of rice culture, the existence in the Philippines of two pre-eminent rice research institutions (UPLB and the International Rice Research Institute), a favorable legislative environment, a broad administrative infrastructure and sufficient foreign exchange.
If the government—Congress and the Executive branch—applied to Philippine agriculture the same seriousness and consistency that the authorities of Taiwan, with the island’s far more limited resources, did, this country would have become (1) self-sufficient in rice, (2) not needed to import that basic community and (3) quite possible have become an exporter.
The job can be done. In the seventies the government, through its Masagana 99 program, demonstrated that an all-out effort pursued with determination could give rise to rice self-sufficiency. There is no reason why a Masagana-type program cannot be replicated at this juncture.
If Taiwanese, with far limited resources on their agriculturally inhospitable island, could produce not only rice self-sufficiency but also a rice export trade, so, definitely, can Filipinos.