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The likely role of Egyptian and Argentine garlic in Taiwan’s elections

Egyptian exporters have not only set a new record for garlic exports to Taiwan in 2023, but also may have had an indirect participation in the presidential and parliamentary elections of this island nation, reports EastFruit. They were accompanied by garlic suppliers from Argentina, who joined Egypt as one of the two main exporters of this product to the Taiwanese market.

To understand how garlic from Egypt and Argentina could play a role in the elections in this island state, we need to explain some linguistic peculiarities.

The presidential and parliamentary elections in Taiwan (or officially the Republic of China) took place in January of this year, but the campaigning began long before the vote. The population of Taiwan speaks many languages (such as Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese Hokkien, and others), which creates many homophones, or words that sound alike but have different meanings.

As South China Morning Post explains, the Hokkien expression for “to be elected” sounds like the Mandarin phrase for “frozen garlic”, and the words for “good luck” are the same as the word for “radish” in Mandarin. Therefore, garlic and daikon radish became symbols of the electoral process in Taiwan, and were given to the candidates by their supporters as tokens of luck and success.

For instance, in the photo below, you can see one of the candidates for Taipei mayor holding a basket of “lucky vegetables”.

Turning to the fruit and vegetable market, Taiwan has to import both daikon radish and garlic. For example, with a garlic production of 50-60 thousand tons per year, according to FAOStat, the country imports 10 to 25 thousand tons of this product annually. Taiwan is also one of the few countries in the world where there has been almost no competition from Chinese garlic for many years, although there were occasional scandals involving the smuggling of Chinese garlic in the past.

This opens up great opportunities for some other, smaller than China, garlic-exporting countries. They included Egypt, Argentina, and Spain until last year, which together accounted for at least 96% of all garlic imports to the island state. From 2022, however, the share of Spain in the garlic supply to Taiwan (and other markets) dropped sharply due to persistent droughts.

As a result, in January-November 2023, Egypt and Argentina exported 8.9 thousand tons and 9.4 thousand tons of garlic respectively to the Taiwanese market, while Spain only shipped 162 tons. Egypt also broke the record of garlic exports to Taiwan and nearly tripled the amount of the previous calendar year.

It is worth noting that in 2023, Egyptian garlic was available on the Taiwanese market mainly from May to October, with little competition from other suppliers, and replaced the Spanish products that were previously offered on the island in autumn. On the other hand, the Argentine garlic season usually starts in Taiwan at the end of autumn and lasts until mid-spring.

Therefore, it is quite likely that Egyptian garlic was used during the pre-election campaign in Taiwan, and Argentine garlic was gifted to the winners of the elections! Thus, garlic farmers in Egypt and Argentina, without their own awareness, could indirectly take part in the political events of a faraway island state.

We should also mention that Taiwan is not the largest importer of garlic in the world or even in the Southeast Asian region, but the uniqueness of this market lies in the fact that there is no competition from China (at least legally). For example, Indonesia imports up to 600 thousand tons, Malaysia – up to 160 thousand tons, Philippines – up to 100 thousand tons, and Thailand – from 40 to 90 thousand tons of garlic per year. In these markets, the share of mainland China usually ranges from 94% to almost 100%.

EastFruit

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