Translated and compiled by Bing-sheng Lee
Last month, Hong-Kong-based Initium Media published an article on the economic benefits of betel nut and argued the plant has been over-criticized by health and environmental advocates.
The article has raised debate over the economic value, health risks and negative environmental impact of betel nut in Taiwan.
According to the report, betel nut became very popular among Taiwanese in the 1980s for its energy boosting properties. In 1991, the total value of the betel nut industry reached NT$8.8 billion (approximately US$270 million), ranking it first among all the fruits in Taiwan.
The huge profits earned betel nut the name of “Green Gold” in the 1990s in Taiwan and surpassed the value of the sugar cane industry and egg industry.
Betel nut remains one of the island’s highest-grossing agricultural products. Over the past five years, the average annual value of the betel nut industry has stayed higher than NT$8 billion (approximately US$245 million).
The article states that the production and sales of betel nut have created more than one million jobs and even the production of betel leaves, used to wrap the betel nuts, has formed an industry that employs around 45,000 people in Taiwan.
Statistics released in 2005 by the Council of Agriculture also showed that betel nut is one of the most competitive Taiwan agricultural products exported to China.
Wen Chung-liang, a member of Rural Meinung Field Learning, a civic group that promotes rural villages, says betel nut has also helped ameliorate the problem of the aging population in rural Taiwan because the plant is easy to manage and does not require much labor.
Wen also says that if it were not for betel nut, many traditional farmers would not have earned enough money to support themselves in the last 50 years.
Huang Wan-chuan, a retired professor of the department of business administration at Asia University in Taichung, says that even though betel nut trees are shallow-rooted plants, they are not necessarily more damaging to soil conservation than other commercial plants.
Huang also argues that betel nut should not be labeled “bad plants.” He believes every plant has its pros and cons, and the public has put too much emphasis on the cons of betel nut. He says people should not always think about eliminating the plant, but should try to improve its drawbacks and promote its benefits.
Health risks outweigh economic benefits
Despite the economic benefit of betel nut in Taiwan’s agriculture, many groups are against the plant because of its health risks and the potential environmental damage it causes.
Last month, in response to the Initium article, Taiwan Alliance for Areca Nut Control and Oral Cancer Prevention said that betel nut has been proven to be Group 1 Carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Simply chewing betel nuts without adding any other additives may lead to oral cancer.
The group stated that although betel nut is part of the Taiwanese culture and has been beneficial to Taiwan’s economy, the related health risks have been scientifically proven and people should stop chewing it.
According to the latest statistics released by Health Promotion Administration, the number of oral cancer patients in 2013 reached 7,248, which was the fifth most among the different types of cancer in Taiwan, and 92% of the cancer patients were males aged 30 to 59.
Chen Ken-chung, attending doctor at the department of Stomatology at National Cheng Kung University Hospital, says betel nut is not over criticized because it does cause cancer. In addition to the health risks, betel nut residue and juice also dirty the environment.
Chen argues that even though the betel nut industry has made a lot of money, it has also deprived many people of their health, led to huge medical fees and wasted many medical resources. Those losses should also be taken into consideration when people discuss the pros and cons of betel nut.
Yang Fu-ming, a social activist, says that people should also consider how much society has to pay for the damage caused by over-planting betel nut trees.
Liberty Times reports that an oral cancer patient once said he used to chew betel nuts to get energy boosts for working longer and earning more money for his family. Yet after being diagnosed with cancer, the patient found that he not only lost the time to be with his family, but also made his family struggle financially. He concluded it was not worth it to chew betel nut.
Edited by Edward White