The Implication of Agriculture in Taiwan's Soft Cultural Power

The Implication of Agriculture in Taiwan's Soft Cultural Power

Published: 2021.05.14
Accepted: 2021.05.14
59
Associate/Lecturer
Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS)

ABSTRACT

Taiwan exerts soft cultural power in a variety of ways, including through its popular culture and its manufacturing prowess in ultra-high tech products. In the cultural sphere, food and culinary cultures have gained international acceptance for its chain restaurants and seafood fares. Besides tasty foods, Taiwanese ornamental flowers have also attracted a global following, drawing attention to its farming industry. These products exude appeal to raising Taiwanese cultural awareness amongst global consumers. They attract tourists, customers and consumers to buy and enjoy these products. The farms (both on-land and aqua-based) combine with ornamental flowers to become a foundation for scientific research (in horticulture as well as farming technologies). It is because of these innovations and constant improvements that the Taiwanese food sector is supplied with fresh and tasty ingredients to churning up popular Taiwanese dishes. But, growing these foods also mean that the facilities and technologies used must be optimally maintained and constructed in order to cultivate the highest quality ingredients. Besides, the Taiwanese stakeholders have paired off the high tech infrastructure with reasonably-priced domestic flights, including cargo air freight that can deliver farm products quickly and efficiently. For this entire food provision eco-system to thrive, farmers, sellers, consumers, logistics experts, trade fair organizers, bureaucrats, scientists and nature conservationists must work together to make its agricultural industry a thriving one. This includes those that depend on sophisticated distribution channels to reach overseas customers like the Taiwanese ornamental flower industry. If done correctly, the planters and their facilities can have spin-off businesses that can attract visitors, consumers and admirers from all over the globe to consume these products and visit their places of production in Taiwan. This will in turn benefit the retailers, tourism stakeholders and also people who just want to have a good time and enjoy beautiful sceneries while enjoying fresh food.

Keywords: ornamental flower, soft cultural power, Taiwan, innovation, aqua

INTRODUCTION

Capitalizing on the regional and global trends

Taiwan generates strong soft cultural power from Tai Liu (Taiwanese popular cultural wave) to its powerful semiconductor chip production that occupies a large proportion of the world’s output. Even in culinary cuisines, Taiwan can tap into its global soft power to achieve sales and recognition for its seafood industry while ornamental flowers have become a main feature of Taiwan’s farming industry. These are two industries that can benefit immensely from each other’s appeal in raising Taiwanese profiles in the global consumption marketplace.

They are also intertwined in the sense that they both generate attractive soft power to lure consumers, tourists and business to acquire and purchase their products. Food industries that supply the ingredients for making the popular dishes require an optimal and ideal combination of both terrestrial farming and sea-based or water-based aquafarming while ornamental flowers require powerful Research and Development (R&D) resources for constant innovation.

For the maximum effectiveness of projecting this agricultural as well as its processed soft power food products overseas, they must also be paired with optimal logistical facilities and infrastructures. Taiwanese logistical infrastructure is well-priced, extensive, efficient and fast, with domestic flights serving 17 airports that can deliver these products effectively (Asia Pacific Aviation Service 2016). During the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the transportation industry with their scheduled cargo flights by China Airlines (CAL) as well as other industry stakeholders were motivated to increase their export destination and logistical reach (Agriculture and Food Agency, Council of Agriculture (COA), Executive Yuan, undated).

The next stage of soft cultural power exuded by Taiwan is probably in the arena of environmental sustainability. With the backdrop and context of climate change, global warming, United Nations (UN)’s priorities on Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDGs) since 2015, Taiwan is becoming a model of best practices in the areas of food security, hunger alleviation, health security through the provision of technologies, gentrification of agricultural infrastructure and tailored farming courses in the areas of forestry, fishing and animal husbandry industries.

Description of popular cultural food products

Both terrestrial and aqua farming benefit from Taiwan’s natural endowments. With 35,801 sq. km of land area, Taiwan is blessed with outer islands that receive tropical rains from January to June and humid conditions from June to September in the year (Asia Pacific Aviation Service 2016). Given that Taiwan has a long tradition of agriculture that is often celebrated in traditional rituals, ceremonies and festivals, its food culture and decorative produce can be featured in these vibrant and colorful events. Internally, within Taiwan, processed foods enjoy strong logistical support in Taiwan with fresh foods and daily dietary necessities available at supermarkets, all-day and all-year convenience stores (like 7-11, Family Mart, Hi-Life and OK) and traditional markets. Traditional markets and bazaars have affordable price-tags, good service quality, with a great diversity fresh foods and local folk food products.

Cooked food is also readily available as well. Global American media giant CNN has featured some of Taiwan’s outstanding dishes like the “Slack Season danzai noodles” which has been in operation in Tainan approximately 100 years ago when a fisherman retailed noodles during a low point in the fishing season and his noodles were so strong-selling that he stopped being a fisherman (Wong, Maggie Hiufu, 2015). The Slack Season noodles is presented and served in shrimp soup with bean sprouts, coriander, minced pork and fresh shrimp, all of which are seafood-based ingredients Wong, Maggie Hiufu, 2015). The fish ball soup is no easy cuisine to make as it requires fresh handmade fish balls that integrates air pockets for bounciness and for absorbing the soup’s essence.

The Tian bu la (sometimes translated as Taiwanese oden) is another iconic Taiwanese solid fish paste sweet soup-based cuisine processed into different fishcake shapes and sizes with Q texture (chewable texture), deep-fried, then boiled in a broth with brown sauce marinate. Some consider this to be influenced by the Japanese oden which also has a lot of processed seafood components like hanpen (shark meat fishcake), kamaboko fish cakes of all types, konbu seafood and other ingredients. In other words, there is already a fusion element in this Taiwanese dish which makes it easier to export to other East Asian markets. It is already considered a well-known dish for visitors going to Taiwan.

Another oyster-based dish is the great Taiwanese oyster vermicelli with its delicate rice noodles dipped in viscous savoury broth soup base mixed with sliced pig intestines and eaten (Japanese style) by sucking up and slurping the salty noodles and its soup. All these iconic dishes well-known amongst East Asian consumers required fresh oyster ingredients to taste good. Thus, one can detect a long tradition of ingredient freshness with skilful culinary techniques to produce high quality cuisines. This lethal combination of iconic dishes, fusion and traditional cooking techniques and ability to access fresh ingredients make the Taiwanese cooked food industry a thriving one, riding on the back of the agricultural industry.

ORNAMENTAL FLOWER INDUSTRY: A MORE DETAILED CASE STUDY

Another de-privileged and understated item in Taiwan’s agricultural cultivation industry is the shining beacon of Taiwan’s ornamental flower industry. While Taiwan’s food products are well-known in the East Asian region for its quality and freshness, its ornamental flower industry has also gained a global following and is exuding soft cultural power alongside its growing popularity.

Historically, the rise of Taiwan as a global hub of orchid floriculture goes back to the 1970s at a time of accelerated economic growth with teams of fans and hobbyists gathering and creating mutant and cross breed species to make unique products that gained the attention of collectors and florists who are willing to fork out large fortunes to acquire them. By the mid-1980s, authorities-managed Taiwan Sugar Corp. (Taisugar) set up contemporary greenhouse systems acquired from the Netherlands to start mass producing flowers through tissue culture (technique of making accurate replications of botanical species by cultivating cells in nutrients) (Her, 2018). This increased scale of production to enjoy the advantage and benefits of economy of scale.

Natural advantages in floriculture like technologically-advanced biotech breeding, positive climatic advantages and genetic diversity, alongside the U.S. government’s 2005 decision to approve importation of Taiwanese orchid seedlings with sphagnum moss culture media and industrial clusters in floriculture parks with competitive rents, smart greenhouses, low interest loans have helped the industry (Her, 2018). The Council of Agriculture (COA) provided relief and organized revitalization initiatives like demonstrative and/or educational events at campus, public outdoor and transportation facilities like the Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) stations while encouraging giving floral presents to the medical entities at the forefront of fighting the COVID-19 coronavirus (Agriculture and Food Agency, Council of Agriculture (COA), Executive Yuan, 2020). Such meaningful use of the flower products also boosts the floricultural industry.

Maximum exposure and optics are highly important in promoting quality Taiwanese cutting-edge products overseas. Taipei City-based Taiwan Floriculture Exports Association (TFEA) dispatch teams to participate in important trade shows like the Royal FloraHolland where team members can pick up inspirations from other competitors too and forge partnerships with other big players (Her, 2018). Taipei-based Taiwan Floriculture Development Association (TFDA) is funded by the authorities to highlight industrial best practices through market information, scheduled events, organizing exhibitions, publicity blitz, seminars hosting, education courses, coordinating international trade show bidding processes, sponsorships to international expositions and hosting flower auctions (Her, 2018).

There are also regional efforts in cultivating the ornamental flower industry. Miaoli County has gone into choosing ornamental plants that carry economic value by setting up the R&D program in partnership with one of the seven district agricultural research and extension stations of the COA that is the Miaoli District Agricultural Research and Extension Station. The Station carries out output of seedlings, provision of chosen ornamental species for the industrial sector, cultivation of embryogenic callus for voluminous output of Pleione formosana mericlones and even create innovative products like white flowers from local lineages through self-pollination (Miaoli District Agricultural Research and Extension Station, 2014).

Local orchid species Pleione formosana is cultivated in the elevations of Central Taiwan with healthy homogenous bigger-sized flower bulbs utilized for growing this innovative kind of localized quality orchid flower from unique cultures that are situated on workbenches (Miaoli District Agricultural Research and Extension Station, 2014). Scheduled mechanized irrigation equipment found on the workbench moisturized the flowerbed to stimulate budding and consistent growth of bulbs (especially Pleione formosana orchid) and the mass output of these bulbs in the agricultural facilities facilitate the agriculturalists to satiate local demand and production and then export them for foreign exchange (Miaoli District Agricultural Research and Extension Station, 2014). The Station also carry out research in cultivating large-sized bulbs on lower flat plains for convenient dissemination known as the unique “High Rise Bed Culture Method” implemented on cool graduated sloping terrain (Miaoli District Agricultural Research and Extension Station, 2014).

Innovative orchids are not the only species or genre of flowers that are generated scientifically and rationally. Scientifically and rationally, species from other eco-systems have also been adapted for cultivation in Taiwan. Uniquely engineered cherry blossoms that can flower in the low evaluation southern Taiwanese region in May annually with flowers bigger in size than cherry blossoms and a makeup alike with the yellow flowers of golden shower trees can also be created this way and they are known popularly as pink shower tree or Thailand Sakura because they are local Thai species that thrive in tropical weather (Taiwan Seed Improvement and Propagation Station, COA, 2021). These plants flower from March to May annually with efflorescence of pink till May and have been nicknamed brilliant “pink shower tree” (technically belonging to the scientific family Caesalpiniaceae and deciduous genus Cassia) by the Taiwanese landscape sector (Taiwan Seed Improvement and Propagation Station, COA, 2021).

They do have make-ups that are closely associated with related species like sunshine tree, kassod tree, and golden shower tree with five-petaled flowers and five dark red sepals and horticultural fans have described them as romantic or blessed ‘strings of stars’ or ‘meteor showers’ that are cultivable in the low-lying elevation of tropical southern Taiwan (where sakuras or cherry blossoms cannot survive) (Taiwan Seed Improvement and Propagation Station, COA, 2021). Because of their resemblance to sakura cherry blossoms when glanced from afar, pink shower trees that bloom after Taiwan cherry have been in demand with consumers in the central and southern areas of Taiwan in the 21st century, in other words, there is much resonance between market demand and ornamental agricultural supply (Taiwan Seed Improvement and Propagation Station, COA, 2021).

The Taiwan Seed Improvement and Propagation Station, COA noted that the pink shower tree germination speed from seeds originating from the long cylindrical pods that are planted in flower beds have a naturally low speed but they can attain almost 80% after scientific handling (Taiwan Seed Improvement and Propagation Station, COA, 2021). Such plants have also sparked off associated industries as well. The mass tourism industry and photography buffs have enjoyed leisurely walks through paths with beautiful ornamental trees and herbal plants which in turns catalysed interest in ornamental plant cultivation in Taiwan and both sectors can benefit from this pink shower tree horticultural trend with a flowering duration of almost 45 days in the climatic conditions of central and southern Taiwan (Taiwan Seed Improvement and Propagation Station, COA, 2021).

With the pandemic situation, international shows had been mothballed or toned down but Taiwanese attention has turned inwards to domestic audiences. Taiwan’s success in managing the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic was feted globally. This achievement was complemented with the morale-boosting baseball game on 8 May 2021 with live spectators to feature tens of thousands of Oncidium, flamingo lily, lily, carnation, Eustoma, Renanthera, Monstera in a 20 by 4.5-square meter field in Xinzhuang Baseball Stadium with the hashtag “#Taiwan can help” (Agriculture and Food Agency, COA, Executive Yuan, 2020). Central Taiwan’s Changhua County is a main Taiwanese floriculture regions part of the total 14,355 hectares used for this industry in 2017 and the industry’s small-scale growers has gained from large-scale government and private sector support initiatives and subsidies from the Cabinet-levelCOA for greenhouse construction and equipment (Her, 2018).

In a recent event, the COA is working with the Taiwanese floricultural industry to turn a crisis into opportunity (interestingly, the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ is made up of a word that means ‘danger’ coupled with a word that means ‘opportunity’!). The 31st Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) games was held behind closed doors with fans at Xinzhuang Baseball Stadium and the COA (Agriculture and Food Agency, Council of Agriculture (COA), Executive Yuan, 2020). It featured iconic Taiwanese flower crops in the background to complement the power of the games while featuring floricultural pride (Agriculture and Food Agency, Council of Agriculture (COA), Executive Yuan, 2020). The authorities and the private sector are not the only ones contributing to the renaissance in the ornamental flower industry. Beneficial courses are also disseminated through non-profit organizations (NPOs) like local farmers’ association in the subjects of disease and pest control and provided support network for greenhorns in the agricultural industry (Her, 2018).

Taiwanese flowers have since expanded into genres like dancing Phalaenopsis, flamingo lily, golden Oncidium, colorful Eustoma, tropical orchids, elegant Cymbidium and the lucky Malabar chestnut with an annual revenue of New Taiwan Dollar (NTD) 16.5 billion or US$0.58 billion (including NTD 6.6 billion or US$0.23 billion coming from exports) (Agriculture and Food Agency, Council of Agriculture (COA), Executive Yuan, 2016). Approximately 33.3% of Taiwan’s floriculture products like anthuriums, lisianthuses, Oncidium, Phalaenopsis (moth orchids which is the common species name) are exported to Australia, the European Union (EU), Japan and the U.S. with Research and Development (R&D) outfits (Floriculture Research Center (FRC) in Yunlin County and Agricultural Research and Extension Stations) producing orchids, calla lilies, Malabar chestnuts with strong colours and longevities (Her, 2018).

Learning from others is an interactive process as Taiwan can then disseminate what it learned to others as well. In fact, sharing its experience with others is what Taiwan is good at. Taiwan has been disseminating knowledge to the rest of the world since the mid-20th century. The inaugural agricultural technical assistance mission was sent to Vietnam in 1959 and they have since become a regular feature of overseas developmental aid to others (International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF), undated).

While learning from others, Taiwan is also archiving and curating their horticultural treasures as well. Taiwanese conservationists are scouring the island of Taiwan locating rare local plant specimens that are in danger of extinction due to climate change and human activities, especially those found in primary and secondary forests as well as the outer islets and island of Taiwan and they are indeed racing against time (Wang, Ann, 2020). Environmentally-enlightened individuals like Dr. Cecilia Koo from the Botanic Conservation Centre and other “plant hunters” are experts looking for unique local plants found in the uneven terrains of the eastern coast from Taitung to Dongyin in the Matsu archipelago (Wang, Ann, 2020). Hung Hsin-chieh, a research assistant at the Botanic Conservation Centre explained in her own words: “I started collecting plants when I was still at school. I didn’t used to think it was that important. But since I began working at the conservation centre, I have realised that many (living) things that used to be there, are there no longer. So for many things, if you don’t conserve them properly then perhaps in the future you’ll no longer be able to find them.” (Wang, 2020).

70% of Taiwan is blessed with thick vegetation on mountains that are home to deer, wild boar and a threatened Formosan black bears in addition to flora species and the authorities are trying their best to shift to ecological protection with the use of renewable sources to manage climate change while the “plant hunters” risk their lives to climb steep cliffs in heavy rains as Hung Hsin-chieh explained: “Not everyone can get to the places I go to. I can stay a long time out in the wild, in the mountains or forests. I go in scattered directions. I am very good at climbing trees - not everyone can climb trees” (Wang, 2020). His compatriot Cheng Ken-yu, moss and bryophyta collection manager at the Botanic Conservation Centre suggested that some plants may have pharmaceutical, industrial, commercial, commodify-able, aesthetic or other forms of benefits: “Then we’ll have these species that we can use. Or perhaps one day when a certain habitat needs this specific species, we can provide it” (Wang, 2020).

The horticultural and ornamental flower industry may want to tap into such resources while, as a form of corporate social responsibility (CSR), recognize the importance of safeguarding Taiwan’s biodiversity and replenishment, replanting or re-cultivation of rare or extinct species into the natural, residential or recreational environments. Cheng Ken-yu, moss and bryophyta collection manager at the Botanic Conservation Centre noted: “We hope that these species have a chance to return to their original habitat. Or one day, when we wish to create a (new) habitat, these species are able to live there happily” (Wang, 2020). Therefore, there is an entire ecosystem of cultivators, growers, agriculturalists, retailers, markets, convention organizations, government officials, horticulturalists and conservators that exists in Taiwan to make the ornamental flower industry a thriving and economically productive sector.

CONCLUSION

As a concluding remark, this writing has detailed the attractiveness of agriculture, not just as a generator of value-added source of food but also the aesthetic attraction of the farms, the culinary dishes that can be cooked using the ingredients from the land. It is especially relevant to the current global awareness of the importance of preserving the beauty and integrity of the natural environment. Cooked food especially is a sign of human processing of the wonders of nature into products that satisfy the palate and the five senses. This writing provided some examples of such dishes. If taste is one of the visual senses that satisfy the palate, then visual aesthetics is certainly another way to enjoy the fruits of nature. This includes ornamental flower products with its own global fandom. The writing gave examples of the intricacies of cultivating these flowers and events like trade fairs that exposes quality Taiwanese products to the rest of the world. The amount of efforts put into promotion is a testimony to the specialized eco-system set up to manage the entire upstream and downstream activities within this sector. The innovation process in this sector was also detailed in the writing with selected examples. All in all, the success of Taiwan in agriculture is the sum efforts of a vast universe of stakeholders, the writing has touched on some of them.

REFERENCES

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