Though Mountains Divide and Oceans Are Wide

I know the small world of agriculture in the U.S. resembles a family, with everyone seemingly linked by only two or three degrees of separation.

I didn’t know that intimacy applies all over the world.

The great folks at the American Institute in Taiwan took some time to visit with me yesterday. Basically, AIT is the American embassy in Taiwan. Why, you may ask, (I did) don’t we call it the American embassy in Taiwan, if that’s what it is? Welcome to the wide, wide world of diplomatic relations.

The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) is a non-profit, private corporation established shortly after the United States Government changed its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing on January 1, 1979. The Taiwan Relations Act (PL 96-8) of April 10, 1979, authorized the continuation of “commercial, cultural and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan.” It also provided that “any programs, transactions, or other relations conducted or carried out by the President or any Agency of the United States Government with respect to Taiwan shall, in the manner and to the extent directed by the President, be conducted and carried out by or through the American Institute in Taiwan.” The Department of State, through a contract with the Institute, provides a large part of AIT’s funding and guidance in its operations. Congress, in passing the Taiwan Relations Act, also assumed an oversight role with respect to the Institute’s operations. If you want to read more like this (I plagiarized this shamelessly–could you tell?), please visit AIT’s Website or do some additional research on China-Taiwan-U.S. relations. It’s frankly a fascinating topic, especially for history addicts.

While receiving a thorough briefing from AIT, I had the honor to meet the AIT Director Christopher Marut, a foreign service diplomat with extensive experience in U.S.-Asia relations. He is, basically, the U.S. ambassador to Taiwan (see above). He stopped by for a few minutes and our conversation centered on what consumers want in Taiwan, and if there are lessons here for marketing beef to U.S. consumers. We agreed that in some ways, Asian consumers light the path for marketing to U.S. consumers, with demands for transparency in production methods and safety procedures as well as convenience and attractive packaging trends.

Mr. Marut’s agriculture staff proved equally knowledgeable, making for an extremely productive meeting overall.

Why did this experience teach me about how small the world is? Emily Scott, AIT’s deputy chief of the agricultural sector, graduated from Colorado State University. And, like me, she has Dr. Tom Field to thank for a great education–he was her undergraduate adviser in the Animal Sciences program, and my master’s adviser as well. (Tom, does this mean you’re getting old?)

Taiwan depends on imported food. They currently have a 32 percent self-sufficiency rate for ag products. While the government works daily to increase that, it may never be much higher, due to challenges including limited arable land and urban encroachment. Agriculture makes up about 2 percent of Taiwan’s GDP and roughly 5 percent of the working population. Taiwan has a globally competitive manufacturing and tech sector and, with a land mass the size of Maryland and Delaware combined, is the sixteenth most densely populated country in the world. Since 2010, Taiwan’s population grew less than 0.2% and the fertility rate stands at 0.9, which is the lowest rate ever recorded here. Government estimates say the population will reach a maximum roughly 23.4 million between 2020 and 2025. Even with population expected to shrink in the future, the country will always depend on imported food for its people. It’s a win-win that we enjoy a booming trade relationship with Taiwan–the U.S. is Taiwan’s third largest export market for goods.

However, with this in mind, it may be especially difficult for the Taiwanese people to separate the issue of food self-sufficiency from food security. While any country strives for food self-sufficiency, in a country like Taiwan, food security may depend more on relationships with other countries than it does on local agricultural production–particularly in nutrient dense beef, which in Taiwan is really only a byproduct of dairy production.We all know that in a global economy, relationships matter–in Taiwan, that wisdom takes on critical meaning to the people.

I heard a lot from both AIT and the National Animal Industry Foundation folks about the situation regarding beef access and its relationship to local pork production and access issues. (A politically charged topic not for this time and place, but buy me a beer, or better yet, some sake, sometime and we’ll discuss it.)


Thanks to the National Animal Industry Foundation for a productive meeting about Taiwan agricultural production. To my right, CEO Michael Chung-Ginn Lee and his staff.


The Eisenhower Fellows of Taiwan (An extremely active and wonderful group! And I got my very own sign!) hosted supper last night and I heard (mainly from Mr. Sean Lee, an Eisenhower Fellow who hangs out with some crazy U.S. beef addicts who once ate three, 32-ounce monster steaks in a sitting! Hope I get to see this power eating in action while I’m here, I may find a new spokesman for U.S. producers!) how much Taiwan loves U.S. beef. Truth is, in three days here I have already heard that over and over. We have a committed market for our products over here, even if the access road challenges us sometimes. Heartfelt thanks to EF Association in ROC Chairman Mr. Shui-teh Hsu for hosting supper. At 82 years young, he had a long and distinguished career in public service, and now dedicates some of his time to Eisenhower Fellowships (when he’s not advising world leaders and winning at golf, that is!).

One more thing…

Meat Consumption in China and US

As you can imagine, Avian Flu concerns Taiwan greatly. Farmers produce quite a bit of poultry here (by “quite a bit” I mean about 355 million broilers a year), and in China (China’s population leads the world in meat consumption and while pork leads the way, poultry consumption grows annually). The H7N9 strain appears not only one of the most contagious, but also the most lethal to humans, ever. (Honest admission: Those who know me remember that my son underwent a life threatening infection in January. It wasn’t related to Avian Flu, of course, but since then I cannot wash my hands frequently enough, and I’m probably thinking about H7N9 more than I should now.) With H7N9 in China, you can imagine just how seriously the government of Taiwan takes the responsibility of detection and control here–as evidenced by an experience I had in the Taipei airport. There, all arriving passengers are screened for fever by an electronic heat monitoring system. Passengers walk toward a monitor, which shows elevated temperature as a red halo around the body image on-screen. I asked what would happen if a passenger appeared with a fever and they told me that they would be examined by a doctor and possibly quarantined for a week. (Geez, that would have cramped my Fellowship style! Is it just me, or did it suddenly get warm in here?)