Collecting traditional farming wisdom

By Warren Kuo 郭華仁  / 

Wed, Oct 20, 2010 - Page 8

Democratic Progressive Party Legislator William Lai (賴清德), who is running in the Greater Tainan mayoral election next month, has said that he will establish an agricultural think tank if elected, adding that he encourages the establishment of farming schools where agricultural techniques can be exchanged in local communities.

Nowadays, when talk of profit dominates politics, the idea of incorporating the wisdom of our older generation of farmers into policy is indeed a welcome change.

The nation’s traditional farmers were around long before chemical pesticides started being used. In days gone by, our farmlands were beautiful, our waters were clean and we had an abundance of fauna. We need to remember these times for if that precious knowledge is not quickly collated and passed on, I am afraid that future generations of Taiwanese will get used to the dilapidated farming villages we already have and they will be unable to develop any real love for our land.

Much more valuable than this, however, is the understanding farmers have of our ecosystems. In the past, our farmers relied on the good bacteria that existed in vast quantities in our land as they made organic fertilizer, softened up the soil and helped the land absorb nutrients.

However, the way chemical fertilizer has been abused over the last 50 years has seen our farmlands deteriorate with only pests and bad bacteria left on them.

As soon as farmers cannot afford these two types of supplies, whose manufacture is oil-reliant, our agricultural production will collapse. This is not something that will go away as we approach the post-petroleum era. It will lead to a recurring disaster.

In 2005, the UN brought together 800 experts and academics in a collaborative effort called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. The results were released in a report two years ago. Of particular note is the report’s conclusion that Agricultural Ecology, or Agroecology, should be the basis of agricultural industries and agriculture. This, it says, is the best way to deal with future food crises, not the genetic modifying technology controlled by large corporations.

However, we cannot rely solely on the academic world, especially since academia in Taiwan is not particularly strong in this area. What we need is for researchers and farmers to work together: It is the farmers who truly understand their local natural ecosystems, as they work on the land day in, day out. This is also the reason why participatory research has become so popular overseas in the last few years.

Talk, however, is cheap, and actually getting ourselves in a position in which we can collate the collective knowledge of traditional farmers, especially regarding their understanding of weeds and insects, is something else entirely.

The only people capable of doing this job would be those with a strong background in biological testing. I would therefore like to suggest Lai immediately bring together biology teachers and volunteers in the fields of ecosystems and environmental protection to work together in this meaningful job.

I also hope that the Council of Agriculture and political leaders do not play politics with something as important as this, for learning from our older generation of farmers should be a concerted, nationwide undertaking.

Warren Kuo is a professor at National Taiwan University’s Department of Agronomy.

TRANSLATED BY DREW CAMERON