Philippine Daily Inquirer
by Rina Jimenez-David
Taiwan rarely strikes visitors, especially foreigners who come for the shopping and the food, as a model for agricultural development. But behind the skyscrapers and factories, Taiwan’s economy is fueled in large part by agriculture.
The late former senator Letty Ramos Shahani, who for a long time sat on the board of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (Meco), the de facto representative office of the Philippines’ interests in the island, once told me that she loved serving at Meco for two reasons. One was because her father, the late foreign secretary Narciso Ramos, was ambassador to Taiwan and helped the country work its way around the “one China policy” through the creation of Meco. The other reason was that agriculture was close to her heart, and indeed in her retirement from politics she settled in her farm in Pangasinan and loved describing herself as essentially a farmer.
And for her, Taiwan provided the blueprint for how agriculture could be used to spur the growth of a prosperous nation, whose economy is now anchored on electronics and consumer products. Today, agricultural production in Taiwan is marked by a concentration on high-value products, such as tropical fruits, vegetables, fisheries and other seafood.
In earlier visits, I had a taste of this bounty when we came home with boxes of wonderful fruits native to Taiwan that, said current Meco head Lito Banayo in another meeting, he hopes we can start cultivating in our native soil. One of these is the cherimoya, a large green fruit resembling our native atis but much sweeter and juicier.
During my most recent visit just before the Holy Week, the cherimoya was in season and we found some in the night market. But since it was but the first day of our five-day stay, we couldn’t figure out a way to preserve the fruits long enough to bring them home.
The trip was part of the prizes given to winners of the Bright Leaf Agriculture Journalism Awards late last year. This columnist was one of the judges invited to join the group, and this time there was enough time and space in the itinerary to take in the more “touristy” aspects of this small but scrappy island-nation.
Bright Leaf has been organized and sponsored by Philip Morris Fortune Tobacco Co. (PMFTC) for the last 12 years, “to give recognition to journalists and photographers, who are the people behind the stories that pay tribute to the struggles and successes of our country’s farmers and other producers.” “They are the brave messengers who bring to public attention the importance of agriculture in our everyday lives,” added PMFTC external affairs director Bayen Elero-Tinga. This year, a new category has been added: Best Online Story, for a news or feature story published in an online website.
Still, noted board of judges chair Krip Yuson in last year’s award rites: “The importance of agriculture appears to escape public attention beyond the fundamentals, which explains why not too many regular publications allow for frequent space for agriculture journalism.” Call Bright Leaf then a shout-out to all who labor in covering this overlooked beat.
And so, through five days touring in Taiwan, we took in not just the obligatory sights (Taipei 101, Shilin Night Market, Ximending Youth shopping district, the National Palace Museum, Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, Longshan Temple), but also a day-trip to Taroko National Park where we took turns for hours posing for selfies and groufies among the magnificent gorges. We also paid visits to a crowded Din Tai Fung branch with the famous xiao long bao dumplings, a small restaurant that specialized in lobster and crabs, and a roadside diner that served scrumptious roasted duck (eaten with our hands). Being agricultural writers, the awardees couldn’t help commenting on the verdant fields and orchards, the green hills, the heaping vegetables served at our tables. Indeed, it was a “green” visit, in more ways than one! A special shout-out to PMFTC communications manager Didet Danguilan-Santiago for the hospitality and for acting as the group’s mother hen.