Iin their pursuit For the perfect pineapple, Taiwan’s agricultural engineers spare no effort. It took them nearly 25 years to develop a mango-scented variety that has a longer shelf life than the island’s dominant strain and is resistant to blemishes during the hot, humid summer months. Released in 2018, it was officially named Tainong 23. But soon became known as Mango Pineapple.
The variety is now the focus of a new attempt at China’s fruit and vegetable wars. On April 4, Taiwan’s deputy agriculture minister, Chen Jun-nai, accused China of “robbing” the rights of plant breeders after mainland media reported that mangoes and pineapples were being grown in southern China. Smuggling seeds or seedlings to the mainland was “absolutely unacceptable,” he said.
Pineapples are a valuable export product for Taiwan. China has previously targeted them to pressure the island it claims. But the latest development comes at a sensitive time, as China and the United States ramp up preparations for a possible war over Taiwan. The self-governing island will also hold a presidential election in 2024, in which farmers are an important constituency.
Since taking office in 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen has sought to reduce Taiwan’s economic dependence on China by expanding exports to other countries. Both said her administration was making progress toward a trade deal with the United States. For now, though, China remains the island’s largest trading partner.
China lifted tariffs on Taiwanese pineapples in 2005, when it wanted to forge closer ties through trade. In 2020, it bought $49 million worth of fruit, accounting for more than 90% of Taiwan’s annual fruit exports. Then, in 2021, China banned all imports of Taiwanese pineapples, saying they harbor pests. Taiwan called it a political tactic. Before long, the pineapple became a symbol of resistance to China.
Ms Tsai urged her people to “eat Taiwan’s pineapple until it explodes”. Local businesses add pineapples to everything from beer to beef noodles. Taiwan also called on other countries to buy its “free pineapples.” This echoes China’s promotion after it raised tariffs on Australia’s “free wine” in 2020.
Japan responded positively to Taiwan’s appeal. It bought 62% of the island’s exported pineapples by the end of 2021. However, the short shelf life of Taiwan’s main gold diamond varieties has hindered further sales. Therefore, Taiwan began to promote mango pineapple, and in 2022 it received temporary intellectual property protection in Japan.
At the same time, China rapidly expanded the cultivation of golden diamonds and began selling them abroad as “Chinese pineapples.” Its farmers now appear to have their sights set on mango pineapples. On March 11, an official news website in Hainan province reported that both types of plants were grown on about 60 hectares of farmland.
There are only 27 hectares of mango and pineapple plantations in Taiwan, and production is limited to four seedling companies and three farmers. Only Taiwan and Japan legally protect the breed. Taiwan and China established a working group on plant patents in 2010, but China stopped negotiations in 2016.
On March 16, Taiwan’s cabinet approved raising the maximum penalty for illegally exporting seeds or seedlings to three years in prison. Still, it’s hard to pinpoint how the new variety got to China: it can be grown from buds from the pineapple crown.
The news was especially hard for staff at Taiwan’s Agricultural Research Institute, who began breeding the variety in the 1990s by hand-cross-pollinating different lines. “It’s really disappointing,” said Huang Shouhong, a researcher there. “This is very detrimental to us as individuals, researchers and the country.”■
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