Asia-Pacific Food

Transecting “Healthy” and “Sustainable” Food in the Asia Pacific

Food, Culture & Society Special Issue (Expected online October 2019)

In the last few years, many new food practices that claim to be “healthy” and “sustainable” have become ubiquitous in Asia and the Pacific. New food trends—such as locavorism, organic eating, switching to brown rice, and plant-based diets, to name just a few—are becoming a significant part of Asian consumer culture. It is far too easy to see these ostensibly healthy and sustainable food trends as a result of diffusion from North America and Western Europe. We seek instead a more complex understanding of the globalization of food, where food knowledge and practices are constantly negotiated, translated, and mixed in complex ways through many different intermediaries and forms of social and mass media, with a great deal of reflexivity and self-consciousness. Hence, while some elements of “healthy” and “sustainable” eating in the Asia Pacific look remarkably similar to their counterparts in North America and Western Europe, there are striking differences as well. The eight papers in this special issue—selected from a workshop conducted in August 2018 at Yale-NUS College—examine a range of food trends in a broad swath of the Asia Pacific region. They include studies of the emergence of locavorism in Hong Kong and the Philippines, the promotion of low carbon and slow food in Taiwan, the introduction of “nutritionism” and healthy dieting in Nauru, the construction of safe foods in Singapore, country chicken and Ayurvedic products in India, and the campaign for brown rice in the Philippines. All underscore the complexities of globalization, illustrating the diverse ways in which the “local” negotiates (and co-constitutes) the “global” both through common processes, and through the specific political economy, culture and history of each geographic context.

Special Issue Content:

Introduction: Transecting “Healthy” and “Sustainable” Food in the Asia-Pacific by Marvin Joseph Montefrio and Richard Wilk

Paper 1: Cosmopolitan Localism: Global Expansion of Local-food Movement in Postcolonial Hong Kong by Hao-Tzu Ho

Paper 2: Country Chicken, Globalization and Discourse: Young Tamil Women’s Cultural Critique by Madeline Chera

Paper 3: Discursively Globalized: Singapore and Food Safety by Nicole Tarulevicz

Paper 4: Transecting Global Encounters—The Fall and Rise of Brown Rice in the Philippines by Shun-Nan Chiang

Paper 5: The Rise of Nutritionism and Decline of Nutritional Health in Nauru by Amy McLennan

Paper 6: Resolving the Stakeholder’s Perception of Sustainable Food in Taiwan: Government’s Low Carbon Food Campaigns vs. Digital Activism of NGOs by Yi-Chieh Lin

Paper 7: A Local Genie in an Imported Bottle: Ayurvedic Commodities and Biomoral Consumption by Venera Khalikova

Paper 8: Philippine Locavorism as Assemblage by Marvin Joseph Montefrio, Jeremy de Chavez, Antonio Contreras, and Dennis Erasga

Urban Farming


Photo credit: Straits Times

With more than half of the population living in cities, there is now a growing interest in producing food in urban areas. Living in Singapore allowed me to see a different kind of urban farming movement. In the United States, there is a tendency for urban farming movements to focus on the issues of food security and justice. Nestled in post-industrial inner cities, urban farming spaces in the United States endeavor to address issues of food access in low-income, communities of color. However, critical food scholars have now raised concerns about the tendency of urban farming to be associated with gentrification.

The case of Singapore, however, is different. Urban farming began largely as a nostalgic endeavor among residents who long for the opportunity to touch the soil and interact with the natural environment. It is only recently that urban farming has taken a more food security perspective. Our findings thus far point to an overemphasis on aesthetics (i.e. what and how urban farms should look like in manicured Singapore), which drives everyday politics among urban farmers, state bureaucrats, institution officials, and even non-farming residents—a situation we refer to as everyday aesthetic politics. Urban farmers negotiate aesthetic politics and governance as they plan and execute their production spaces, resulting in both benefits (e.g. recognition and awards) and disadvantages (e.g. double work and production disruptions). Thus they both take advantage of and resist aesthetic forms of governance. On the surface, observers deem urban farmers in Singapore as just performing rather than producing—that it’s just a hobby and that they’re not actually “producing” food. A closer look, however, would reveal how urban farmers pay attention to the nourishment materialities of food for everyday consumption while performing what is expected of them in Singapore’s aesthetic politics.



Agritourism (or Farm Tourism) has become not just a popular tourism enterprise, but also a sustainable rural development tool. Governments of developing countries, such as the Philippines, are banking on the income diversification potential of agritourism to uplift the lives of their impoverished small farmers. This research project critically interrogates how agritourism programs are emerging in the Global South, with attention to whether such development initiative delivers on its promise of “inclusive growth.” My findings thus far point to the tendency of the agritourism program in the Philippines to favor landed elites and exclude small farmers who do not have sufficient access to economic, social, and cultural capitals. I also examine closely the processes by which production farms undergo their transition to agritourism spaces, raising critical questions on food security.

Alternative Food

IMG_0715There has been an unprecedented emergence of new trends in the production, marketing and consumption of what is currently promoted as “sustainable” agri-food in Southeast Asia. Over the past decade, food stuff that claim to be “organic,” “local,” “farm-to-table,” “slow food,” to name a few, have started to emerge in farms, markets and retail establishments in many countries in the region. “Sustainable” agri-food is constituted by a complex matrix of the socio-economic, political and cultural processes and material transformations in the production, control, regulation, distribution, and consumption of food, all mediated by the production of knowledge at the intersections between the local and the global. While agrarian and environmental scholars have examined these processes in North America and Western Europe, very few have explored its emergence in the global South (particularly Southeast Asia). This research project inquires into the political economy and cultural politics of organic agri-food in the region, with particular emphasis on knowledge production. It will draw from multiple theoretical perspectives, mainly political ecology (intersections with critical agrarian studies), globalization studies, cultural studies, and STS.

Relevant Publications:

Montefrio, M.J.F., and Johnson, A.T. The politics of participatory guarantee systems for organic food production. Journal of Rural Studies (in press) (Link)

Food Security

IMGP7209Over the last few decades, smallholder farmers in frontier lands and uplands in the Philippines have negotiated with changing conditions of food security. Historically, smallholders (particularly indigenous farmers) have relied on swidden cultivation and gathering of non-timber forest products as direct source of food nourishment and as means of acquiring cash to purchase food stuff. As frontier lands have drastically transformed to accommodate the influx of extractive industries, agribusinesses, and migrant settlement, smallholders continue to struggle and cope with changing access to and utilization of food stuff. This research project focused on the case of smallholder communities involved in and affected by oil palm production regimes in Southern Palawan and the local level politics that affect how food (in)security manifests at the household level. Our approach was informed by related literature from mainstream development studies, critical agrarian studies, and political ecology. We looked at the role of agricultural cooperatives in mediating micro-politics and household food security, as well as social dynamics such as gender, class and ethnicity.

Relevant Publications:

Montefrio, M.J.F.,  Dressler, W. Declining food security in a Philippine oil palm frontier: The changing role of cooperatives. Development and Change (in press) (Link)

Newspaper Publication:

Dressler, W., & Montefrio, M.J.F. (2018, May 10). Pala’wan indigenous food, forests threatened. Philippine Daily Inquirer, Opinion

Featured Photo credit: Alex Felipe (2015)

Contract Farming

IMGP7209The burgeoning discourses on climate change have spurred global interest in low carbon commodities. Governments and the private sector promote these commodities as necessary in mitigating global climate change and in weaning our society away from fossil fuels. Recently, agents of development have advanced the discourse by calling for the integration of smallholder farmers in the production of such commodities. In the Philippines, this is manifested in the targeting of ancestral lands and domains for production of crops, such as Jatropha, Oil Palm, Cassava, and Rubber. Indigenous smallholder farmers are now faced with the decision to participate, if they are not already engaged, in contracts with governments and private companies to produce low carbon commodities. Many of these smallholders continue to practice traditional forms of swidden agriculture (shifting cultivation) for production of both subsistence and cash crops. Hence, their engagement in low carbon commodity contracts may have implications on swidden agriculture, traditional livelihoods and local environments in the uplands.

IMGP6896In light of these recent trends, I explored two research directions. First, I examined decision-making in these production contracts and regimes, in particular how certain factors, such as social constructions of the environment and discourses surrounding low carbon commodities, have influenced the decisions of various agents to engage (or not) in institutional arrangements to grow biofuels and rubber in ancestral domains. I aimed to build on the Institutional Analysis and Development framework to explore decision-making processes in the formation of contracts and production partnerships by underscoring the role of social constructions of and discourses on the environment. Second, I examined how productions systems and institutions associated with low carbon commodity production affect indigenous populations and their local environments. My colleagues and I have published papers on the resilience of traditional swidden agriculture in the context of biofuels and rubber production contracts, as well as the land control processes that further marginalize indigenous smallholders.

Relevant Publications:

Montefrio, M.J.F. (2017). Land control dynamics and social-ecological transformations in upland Philippines. Journal of Peasant Studies, 44(4), 796-816. (Link)

Montefrio, M.J.F. (2016). Cooperation and resistance: Negotiating rubber in upland Philippines. Journal of Rural Studies, 46, 111-120. (Link)

Montefrio, M.J.F., Sonnenfeld, D.A. & Luzadis, V.A. (2015). Social construction of the environment and farmer intentions to cooperate in biofuels and rubber production in upland Palawan, the Philippines. Ecological Economics, 116, 70-77. (Link)

Josol, M.R.C., & Montefrio, M.J.F. (2013). Understanding the resilience of swidden agro-ecosystems interacting with rubber and oil palm production regimes in the Philippines. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 37(7), 812-833. (Link)

Montefrio, M.J.F., & Sonnenfeld, D.A. (2013). Global-local tensions in contract farming of biofuels involving indigenous communities in the Philippines. Society & Natural Resources, 26(3), 239-253. (Link)

Montefrio, M.J.F. (2012). Privileged biofuels, marginalized indigenous peoples: the co-evolution of biofuels development in the tropics. Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, 32(1), 41-55. (Link)

Policy Process

It has always been of interest in academia and practice how certain environmental policies gain salience in the political arena and get formulated and enacted. Many scholars continue to explore the social, cultural, economic, political and biophysical factors that affect the fate of proposed and created environmental policies. During my doctoral studies, I engaged in several studies to explore the politics of environmental policy in the Philippines. I drew from pertinent theories on the policy process, in particular Ostrom et al.’s Institutional Analysis and Development, Hajer’s Discourse Coalitions, Sabatier et al.’s Advocacy Coalition Frameworks, and Schneider and Ingram’s Social Construction of Target Populations. My methodology included key informant in-depth interviews and content analysis of government texts (e.g. bills and acts, legislative transcripts and journals, speeches, administrative orders, implementing rules and regulations) and newspaper articles.

I endeavored to examine discourse coalitions involved in the formulation, enactment and implementation of the Philippine Biofuels Act. This project revealed how discourse coalitions associated with biodiversity conservation have been weak in influencing the biofuels policy in the Philippines. The results underscore the need to bolster biodiversity conservation discourses vis-à-vis the burgeoning interest in biofuels development in ecologically sensitive regions in the country.

I also examined the the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) in the Philippines using the lens of Advocacy Coalition Framework. While the primary motivation of the research project was to test the applicability of the Advocacy Coalition Framework in the Philippine setting and to advance the theory, I also endeavored to identify social and political factors that affect the current implementation of the IPRA. Understanding these factors may allow us to challenge (and hopefully curtail) obstacles that stifle the effectiveness of IPRA.

Relevant publications:

Montefrio, M.J.F., & Sonnenfeld, D.A. (2011). Forest, fuel, or food? Competing coalitions and biofuels policymaking in the Philippines. Journal of Environment and Development, 20(1), 27-49. (Link)

Montefrio, M.J.F. (2014). State Versus Indigenous Peoples’ Rights: Comparative Analysis of Stable System Parameters, Policy Constraints, and the Process of Delegitimation. Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis, 16(4), 335-355. (Link)

Envi Conflict

Conflict and violence are prevalent in environmental and natural resources management. Individuals and groups collide when institutions establish boundaries that cause human displacements and exclusions from access to land and natural resources. I worked with a small team of researchers at Palawan State University, in cooperation with the Forest Management Bureau in the Philippines, to understand conflicts associated with encroachment of “outsiders” onto delineated community-based forest management (CBFM) areas. We endeavored to find out the extent and magnitude of conflicts in CBFM areas, as well as the various strategies upland communities employ to manage these conflicts. The study included extensive administration of surveys to people’s organizations engaged in CBFM agreements throughout the country. The surveys were supplemented with key informant in-depth interviews and participant/field observations in several communities in Palawan for a period of one year beginning October 2011.

Relevant Publications:

Montefrio, M.J.F. (2015). Conflict management manual for forest communities in the Philippines. International Tropical Timber Organization.

Montefrio, M.J.F. (2013). The green economy and land conflicts. Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 25(4), 502-509. (Link)


Southeast Asia MapThe migration-development-environment nexus is an emerging area of scholarship in migration and environmental studies. I worked with a small team of sociologists and environmental scientists to further explore the implications of migration on the environments of sending communities. Related to my larger study on decision-making and low carbon commodity contracts in the Philippines, we investigated how the cyclical movement of Filipino oil palm workers between the Philippine province of Palawan and the Malaysian State of Sabah contribute to farmers’ and landowners’ decisions to engage in the production of oil palm. We endeavored to contribute to the emerging literature on South-South migration by focusing on the role of non-economic or social remittances (knowledge, ideas and values) in shaping the decision-making processes that result in certain environmental outcomes.

Relevant Publication:

Montefrio, M.J.F., Ortiga, Y.Y., & Josol, M.R.C. (2014). Inducing development: Social remittances and the expansion of oil palm. International Migration Review, 48(1), 216-242. (Link)