By Fran Chieh-hsi Lee and Jayming Yang. Coordinator: Rose Hsiu-li Juan. Funded by Research Center of Humanities and Social Sciences, National Chung Hsing University, Taiwan. Source: Digital Archive, NCHU RCHSS.

A Historical Sketch of Agricultural Environment in Taiwan: Food Production, Politics, and Farm Life in the Field

Taiwan’s agricultural environment is a reflection of the colonial history of the island and its transformation in response to the different needs of the various foreign powers that have ruled it. This story provides a small picture of how the island’s farmers and their lives changed through the colonial rules of the Dutch, the Japanese, the Chinese Nationalist Party and the United States from the 17th century to the beginning of the 21st century.

1. Farmers’ important family member: the introduction of water buffaloes by the Dutch


(Farmers working with a water buffalo)


Farmers working with water buffaloes harmoniously on rice farms is one of the defining images of Taiwanese agriculture. The island’s agricultural landscape changed significantly as a result of Dutch colonization, which introduced water buffaloes from Indonesia to Taiwan in the 17th century, back when Taiwan was known as Formosa, meaning “beautiful island” in Portuguese. Since then, water buffaloes were widely seen on farms to help rice cultivation on the island until the mid-20th century.

During this time, water buffaloes – with their slate gray or black skin and long horns – served as Taiwan’s chief labor source for rice farming. Regarded as having stability in character, they were ideal for plowing and weeding rice fields, useful for threshing and transporting sheaves during the harvest; even their dung provided good fertilizer and material for building houses. Being responsible for major heavy work and living closely with farmers and their family, water buffaloes became another family member to their owners. Not eating beef also came to be a self-disciplined practice for farmers and their family to show their gratitude and respect for the buffalo-helpers. Even though most of the water buffaloes were later substituted by farming machines, the practice of not eating beef is still seen in today’s Taiwan, a legacy that signifies the cooperative co-existence between buffaloes and their farmer-family and their role in the island’s agricultural history.

Before the Dutch occupation, there were only small farms producing a variety of vegetables and crops cultivated by indigenous people. The Dutch imported not only water buffaloes but also agricultural skills and tools, which greatly improved the quality and quantity of the island’s agricultural production. The Dutch East India Company also sent a large number of Han Chinese workers from southern China to Taiwan for planting rice and sugar, the main products the company traded with China and Japan.

After 38 years of colonization, Dutch rule was put to an end with their defeat in 1662 by Zheng Chenggong, a Chinese loyalist and military leader of the Ming dynasty. With his troops, Zheng built Taiwan as the military and produce supply center to support his campaign for restoring Ming rule from the Qing dynasty.

Through nearly 60 years of rule, the Dutch and Zheng had set up the foundation of Taiwan’s agriculture industry and brought mass migration of Han Chinese from China, substantially influencing the island’s cultural and environmental landscape.

2. A colonizer’s sugar and rice paradise: Taiwan’s agricultural production under Japanese rule

(A sugarcane field in Japanese ruled period; courtesy of National Taiwan University Library Collection)


Taiwan was ceded to the Empire of Japan in 1895 as a result of Qing China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War. Taiwan’s agricultural production in the subsequent 50 years under Japanese rule clearly reflected its colonizer’s capitalist intervention and war needs for imperial expansion, which could be detected behind the colonial administration’s contradictory and changing policies.

The policies altered when the administration switched their planting priorities from rice to sugar and then back to rice again in accordance with Japan’s domestic needs. This oscillation resulted in intense competition between the two products; yet the farmers in Taiwan continued to be exploited. They had to sustain the cost of converting the crops they planted, as well as bear the economic loss caused by the low procurement price of the crops due to capitalist manipulation of market prices.

Taiwan’s principal food crops during this period were rice and sugarcane. Due to weather and humidity reasons, rice was usually grown in the northern part of Taiwan while sugarcane was grown in the southern part. This formed a natural dividing line between fields of the two crops in mid-western Taiwan. Without suitable conditions for growing sugarcane, Japan had depended highly on imports or trade to satisfy its demand for sugar. It was thus soon decided after the empire took over Taiwan that the island would serve as Japan’s agricultural colony, particularly for sugar production. To increase the production of sugar, the colonial government established dozens of sugar companies and sugar-making factories in Taiwan, which were actually operated by Japanese capitalists. To expand sugarcane plantations, the government encouraged rice farmers to convert to planting sugarcane by implementing a series of policies that included financing cane production, subsidizing technology and equipment, and most effectively, controlling the market price of sugarcane to make it competitive.

The promotion was successful, and it changed the island’s agricultural landscape: the dividing line of rice and sugarcane fields began “climbing” north due to the growing number of the rice fields in northern Taiwan being transformed into cane fields. This phenomenon continued until the colonial government began to promote rice production again when Japan started to suffer a shortage of rice after the First World War, and when a new strain of rice was successfully developed to better suit Japanese tastes.

3. The flour policy: the U.S. intervention and the transformation of agriculture under Nationalist government

(A bag of American flour)


The appearance of flour from the United States in Taiwan in the post-war era signaled the emergence of the U.S. as the new global empire and the growth of its powerful presence and intervention in the Asia Pacific region.

The entry of American flour in Taiwan, an island where there had been no wheat planting and production, and where people had eaten no wheaten food, indicated the island’s unavoidable Westernization/Americanization as a result of American political, economic, and cultural expansion. This new form of colonization was made possible and was carried out when Taiwan, under the rule of Chinese Nationalist government, became one of the protectorates of the U.S. as part of its anti-Communism campaign to prevent the invasion of Communist China in the Cold War context.

The import of low-priced American flour as a form of economic aid and the Nationalist government’s promotion of wheat consumption during the period generated a profound impact on people’s eating habits in Taiwan and directly caused the production of sugar and rice to decrease. This was happening concurrently with the island’s rapid urbanization and industrialization in the latter half of the 20th century, which finally led to the decline of the island’s agriculture, the industry that had long stood as a basis for stabilizing society and upon which the island had grown.

Defeated by the Communists in the Chinese civil war, the Nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek evacuated to Taiwan with more than a million soldiers in 1949, when Taiwan was facing a halt in agricultural production and an acute shortage of food due to war. After making Taipei the temporary capital, the government aggressively built Taiwan as its military and supply base for its campaign to “recover” mainland China.

In the agricultural aspect, the government’s land reform policies largely reduced the power of landowners and reduced the exploitation of farmers. Yet a different kind of exploitation began when the government implemented new policies to profit national enterprises by sacrificing farmers’ benefits. In the 1970s, despite its successful economic growth, Taiwan no longer had any advantage in the exportation of rice and sugar, partly because of U.S. trade policies that aimed to protect its own agricultural sector by limiting the expansion of imports. Coupled with a labor-shortage issue –labor was reallocated from farming to manufacturing – the role of agriculture was eventually reduced from major to minor in Taiwan’s development in the late 20th century. While transformation was inevitable, new challenges created by globalization awaited in the next century.

In the beginning of the 21st century, encouraged and assisted by the government, some farmers in Taiwan switched to plant more profitable products such as fruit and flowers or organic products, while others turned their cultivation into agricultural tourism or recreation to attract new customers. As this indicates, farmers have needed and will always need new strategies to deal with the impacts of trade liberalization brought by globalization.

Taiwan’s agricultural history is a story that shows how the use of land can evolve due to the changing needs of its rulers and colonizers, serving as a sketch that delineates the deep connection between the people, the crops they grow, their history, and the changing landscape and environment.