If Push Comes to Shove, Would Taiwan Starve?

Recent tension in the Taiwan Strait and speculation that China might try to impose a blockade on Taiwan have renewed concern about the island’s levels of food security and self-sufficiency.

From the early 18th century through the mid-20th century, Taiwan was a net exporter of food, especially rice and sugar. But today the island is heavily dependent not just on food imports, but also on deliveries of agricultural inputs such as feed for livestock and urea for fertilizer production. In terms of calories, Taiwan’s overall food self-sufficiency rate in 2021 was just 31.3%, down 0.4% from 2020. The highest it has reached in the past two decades was 34.6% in 2018.  

The challenges to Taiwan’s self-sufficiency in food go beyond population growth and the conversion of farmland for industrial use. The dwindling interest among young people to pursue a career in agriculture and a massive change in eating preferences are also contributing factors.  

Instead of having rice two or three times per day, Taiwanese now consume an increasingly larger amount of wheat and soy products. Once shunned as a taboo food for religious or cultural reasons, beef has also become an increasingly popular option in Taiwan. But local production of wheat and soy is minuscule, and less than 5% of the beef eaten in Taiwan is domestic. 

Lin Chih-hung, deputy director-general of the Department of International Affairs at the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA), notes that food interdependence among countries is a common occurrence due to varying natural resources and climates across regions. In addition, the global division of labor in agriculture has been a longstanding trend.  

The MOA’s goal is to ensure that consumers can purchase the quality farm products they require for a healthy life at a reasonable price, regardless of where in Taiwan they live. 

“Current practice includes ensuring that all agricultural inputs are in place – including seeds and seedlings, fertilizers, pesticides, and feed – to ensure supply capacity and stable domestic agricultural production for at least the next six months,” says Lin. 

These preparations should guarantee that, under normal weather conditions, Taiwan could in six months produce 700,000 metric tons of unhusked rice, 1.44 million metric tons of vegetables, 1.65 million metric tons of fruits, 470,000 metric tons of pork, 420,000 metric tons of chicken, and 250,000 metric tons of seafood and aquaculture products.  

Taiwan usually keeps plenty of rice in reserve. The Chinese-language United Daily News reported last year that Taiwan’s rice stockpile totaled 1.26 million metric tons of unhusked grain. Under normal consumption patterns, that amount would last an entire year. But if imported wheat were no longer available, and staples like noodles and dumplings became scarce, people would inevitably eat more rice than usual.   

A potential weak spot in the government’s contingency plans relates to energy. Lowland farming relies on diesel-powered machines, and the paddle-wheel aerators that fish farmers use to boost oxygen levels in their ponds operate on a continuous power source. If the aerators stopped turning, high-density aquaculture would become impossible.   

High-tech multiple layer indoor vertical farms would be another way for Taiwan to increase food production while future-proofing the sector.

Energy shortages could also interfere with the processing, storage, and distribution of staples. However, Lin explains that part of the government’s rice reserve is kept in low-temperature silos protected from external temperature changes. While electrical cooling is occasionally required to supplement the passive cooling that keeps the grain at an acceptable temperature, this is typically only needed once every three or four weeks.  

“So even if the power grid is interrupted for several hours, the storage of rice shouldn’t be affected,” says Lin. The MOA has been working with local governments, farmers’ groups, and agricultural enterprises to build regional cold-chain logistics centers and cold-chain facilities with integrated backup generators. 

Sixteen grain mills in Taiwan are powered by oil rather than electricity, according to the United Daily News report on rice stocks. The diesel burnt by water pumps, tractors, and distribution trucks is regarded as part of the country’s overall energy requirements and would be met by drawing on oil reserves managed by the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA), Lin says.  

But when MOEA’s Energy Administration was asked about government plans to safeguard food production and distribution in the event of energy-import disruptions, its emailed response focused on the current and projected future size of the country’s strategic coal stockpile, with just the briefest assurance that in an emergency, authorities would “first supply electricity to industries related to people’s livelihoods and critical infrastructure to maintain the country’s basic operations.” 

Former MOA Minister Chen Chi-chung says local foods are of equal quality and freshness to those from abroad.

In an August 2020 interview with Taiwanese lifestyle magazine foodNEXT, then-MOA Minister Chen Chi-chung conceded that Taiwan wasn’t anywhere close to achieving the “40% self-sufficiency by 2020” target set by the Ma Ying-jeou administration in 2011. Taiwan’s farmers are capable, he says, but the public “isn’t yet ready.” Chen stressed the importance of educating consumers, noting that few people know that even though Taiwan grows impressive quantities of cabbages, carrots, lettuce, onions, and tomatoes, it imports almost all of the seeds for those crops.  

While acknowledging that Taiwanese produce is expensive by global standards, and that for many consumers price is the main consideration when shopping, Chen says that local foods are equal to those from abroad in terms of quality and of course superior in freshness. Moreover, domestic produce has a smaller carbon footprint. If consumers could properly grasp where their food really comes from, demand for local produce would surely grow, he argues.   

In recent years, government efforts to strengthen Taiwan’s food self-sufficiency have been multifaceted. Farmers have been encouraged to switch from rice to in-demand staples such as soy, peanuts, sweet potatoes, corn for human consumption, and Chinese pearl barley. The government has also promoted technologies that can enhance productivity and mitigate the agricultural sector’s labor shortage, encouraged consumers to buy domestic produce, and worked to maximize local ingredients in school meals. Even before the Food and Agricultural Education Act took effect in May 2022, textbooks addressed the issue of food waste, emphasizing that the attractiveness of a fruit or vegetable bears no relation to how delicious or healthy it might be.  

Innovative efforts 

In an attempt to aid food security, Taiwan’s food scientists have made some interesting breakthroughs, but few of these have had a noticeable impact beyond the lab. Back in 2011, the Council of Agriculture (as the organization was called until its elevation to ministry-level earlier this year) announced that researchers trying to help rice farmers and reduce wheat imports had perfected techniques for making baked goods using an 80/20 blend of rice flour and wheat flour. Outside the gluten-intolerant minority, however, there seems to be little interest in rice-flour bread. 

Recognizing that climate change is a threat to Taiwan’s food security, between 2017 and 2021 the Council subsidized the construction of reinforced storage facilities that are more likely to survive extreme weather events to ensure a stable supply of fruits and vegetables. 

On the face of it, high-tech multiple-layer indoor vertical farms – like the YesHealth iFarm in Taoyuan’s Luzhu District – would be another way for land-hungry Taiwan to increase food production while future-proofing the sector. But YesHealth Chief Commercial Officer Jesper Hansen notes that since late last year, some vertical farming companies in Europe and the United States have failed, while others are struggling. 

“Vertical farming is a difficult business,” says Hansen. “It’s challenging from a technological perspective – the farms are complicated to operate, and they require the right business model as well.” Crops from vertical farms are high quality, but more expensive than those grown on conventional farms. “It takes time to educate the market about this,” he says.  

YesHealth grows only leafy greens, and Hansen says he doesn’t expect vertical farms to produce other types of crops at commercially viable prices for at least five or ten years.  

Singapore’s recent enthusiasm for rooftop and vertical farming, which are central to its “30 by 30” plan to boost the nation’s food self-sufficiency rate from a pre-pandemic 10% to 30% by 2030, doesn’t offer many useful lessons for Taiwan either. 

The city-state’s embrace of agritech is a result of having few options. Its population density is 12 times greater than that of Taiwan, and just 1% of its land area is devoted to food production. In addition to growing lettuce and kale indoors, Singapore is seeking to expand domestic supplies of eggs and fish. Before the recent international shortage, Taiwan has usually been self-sufficient in egg production, and the frequency of typhoons probably rules out sea-based fish farms such as those envisioned by the Singapore Food Agency.     

By next year, just four Singaporean egg farms will meet half of the national demand for hen shell eggs, with imports meeting the other half. But the country’s push for consolidation and economies of scale may introduce new risks.  

The recent U.S. experience with beef supply provides another useful example. Before the pandemic, just over 50 plants were responsible for as much as 98% of cattle slaughtering and processing in the United States. But Covid-related closures of some of these plants quickly threw meat supply chains into disarray. That series of disruptions, and the egg shortage suffered by Taiwan this year, are reminders that in an industry as critical as food production, measures designed to enhance efficiency must not come at the expense of resilience at a time of challenge.