2012 / 9月
Chen Hsin-yi /photos courtesy of courtesy of TOAF /tr. by Chris Nelson
Working hand in hand with Leezen in organics promotion for nearly 20 years, Tse-Xin Organic Agricultural Foundation (TOAF) is Taiwan’s biggest certifying authority for organic farm produce. As of 2011, a total of 1,512 hectares of arable land, or 31.75% of Taiwan’s organic farmland, is TOAF certified.
More recently, TOAF has shifted its focus to education and ecological conservation, hoping to inspire a wider range of people and break fertile ground for the organics industry.
On Leezen’s shelves, one can see some produce bearing a special “Green Conservation” mark. The mark is in the form of the Chinese character 田 (tian), meaning “field,” with the four quadrants bearing footprints of a frog, bird, mammal and human, symbolizing the variety of life that fields can accommodate, to mutual benefit.
Shopkeepers will tell you that by buying such produce, you can help protect the habitats of numerous protected species! For example, you can buy Guantian water caltrops to save the pheasant-tailed jacana, Sanzhi lotuses to save the two-striped grass frog, Maolin mangos to save the purple crow butterfly, or Pinglin Pure Spring Tea to save the emerald green tree frog.
The Green Conservation Mark is an authentication system jointly launched last year by the TOAF and the Council of Agriculture’s Forestry Bureau. It can be placed alongside another organic mark or it can stand alone; either way, it signifies a win-win for production and the environment.
TOAF CEO Su Muh-rong explains that the organic certification mark is a chief criterion by which consumers can pick out organic products when shopping. But in certain areas that cling to regular farming methods, even farmers willing to go organic find it hard to stave off pollution from neighboring fields, especially given low acreage and manpower. Consequently they’re unable to secure certification in the short term. The Green Conservation Mark, on the other hand, has less stringent rules on the isolation of organic farmland, while also incorporating rules regarding wildlife conservation. This certification approach aims to encourage more people to convert to friendly farming methods, laying a foundation for organics.The jacana cries for help
The first agricultural product to earn the Green Conservation Mark was the Guantian water caltrop, which Leezen began distributing in October 2011. The target of conservation is the endangered pheasant-tailed jacana (Hydrophasianus chirurgus). In Taiwan, this bird is currently found only in the swampy plains between the Bazhang and Zengwen Rivers of Tainan, with a population of around 300, some 250 of which roost in the paddy fields used for growing rice and caltrops.
In fact, the jacana is what originally inspired the Green Conservation Mark program. To lower production costs, farmers in Guantian in recent years started directly sowing seed rice (instead of first raising seedlings and then transplanting them). To prevent the seeds from being eaten by sparrows, they would first mix them with pesticides, resulting in the deaths of jacanas and other waterfowl that ate them. This ecological disaster was noticed by Forestry Bureau Conservation Division technician Lin Qinghua, who soon thereafter sought the cooperation of TOAF in hopes of helping transform the industry.
Lin forged a relationship with TOAF just over a decade ago, while working for the Taipei Zoo. At the time, he was trying to convince elderly Sanzhi farmer Yang Wenshi, who owned a couple hectares of land, to stop using pesticides on his lotuses in order to save the habitat of the endangered two-striped grass frog (Hylarana taipehensis). When that didn’t work, he talked to TOAF to see what could be done. TOAF used its well-practiced “charm offensive” approach to win over the farmer, including providing volunteers to pull weeds and look after his vegetable gardens, expressing concern about ailments that may be caused by long-term exposure to pesticides, and transporting lotuses harvested during the initial conversion stage to the foundation for sale. In the end, they succeeded beautifully.Organic cultivation
In contrast to this effort to save the two-striped grass frog, there are over 100 farmers in Guantian affecting the fate of the pheasant-tailed jacana, making it more difficult overall. Numerous meetings and on-site discussions took place, and though only 17 farmers are currently willing to take part in the program, the resulting total of 9.04 hectares of farmland is a major step forward.
Farmer Wang Baowen says that these participants were ridiculed as crazy: “In fact, six years ago I also laughed at a friend who had decided to grow organic water caltrops, because once you stop using chemical fertilizers, you’re immediately faced with lower yields, or even no harvest at all.” This time, Wang is gritting his teeth and participating, even if it means his harvest will be reduced by half. Farmer Chen Jin says that her field work increased after she stopped using pesticides: weeding, removing apple snail eggs, building barriers to keep out contamination from neighboring fields, and so forth; this keeps her hands busy every day.
Going organic is a slow and arduous process. All farmers would like to leave plots of wholesome land to their children, and sustainable water caltrop farming is a good way to do it. One farmer said, “My old bones often ache, and I hope to see some improvement by going organic.” What surprised everyone was that after they stopped applying pesticides or chemical fertilizers, the once drearily silent fields came alive with a chorus of buzzing insects and chirping birds, the air around the fields became cleaner, and the farmers felt better both physically and mentally.A virtuous cycle
The Guantian model gave rise to a ripple effect. This year, several Pinglin tea farmers are applying for Green Conservation certification, not only helping to protect the emerald green tree frog (Rhacophorus prasinatus), but also contributing to water and soil conservation around the reservoir watershed. And in Taitung, quite a number of organic farmers are eagerly applying for Green Conservation certification so they can share their rural bounty.
Su Muh-rong says that Taiwan’s certification system is becoming well established, boasting many accredited certifying authorities. TOAF, serving the role of a catalyst for industry transformation, should persuade more farmers to go organic.
For instance, two years ago TOAF took on a commission by the Taroko National Park headquarters to help Aboriginal farmers in Sipaw Village, which lies within the park, go organic. After a year of urging, resource integration and technological assistance, Sipaw Village’s first organic product, cabbage, passed certification. With yields at 70% of standard farming and better prices, it was a boon to the farmers’ confidence. Now the Aboriginal village of Dongpu in Nantou County has begun cooperation with TOAF hoping to achieve a win-win for economy and conservation.
Su Muh-rong notes that many forward-looking TOAF projects are able to proceed well thanks to the Leezen channel ensuring favorable purchase prices and the quiet support of mindful consumers. “As long as producers, sellers and consumers are willing to do their part earnestly, everyone will benefit in the end, and a virtuous cycle will materialize,” says Su.