Emergent Philippine Environments and Foodways

I am collaborating with Dr. Alyssa Paredes of University of Michigan Department of Anthropology to organize an academic workshop on emergent issues in Philippine environments and foodways, which we fondly named “Halo-Halo Ecologies” (halo-halo is a popular dessert in the Philippines). The “Halo-Halo Ecologies” Workshop endeavors to explore the intersection of food and environment by bringing together a transnational community of scholars, writers, activists, and food enthusiasts from the Philippines and the diaspora.

The workshop will feature papers on any Filipino food item or practice, mundane or iconic, that combines the cultural commitments of food writing with attention to agrarian, marine/maritime, or urban-ecological issues. We hold that the Philippines and its diasporic networks are exemplary sites through which to examine this topic. Our main goals for this workshop are to:

  • create a transnational community of Philippines and Filipino/x Studies scholars, writers, activists, and food enthusiasts interested in these issues, 
  • to map the contemporary body of literature on food and environment on the Philippines, 
  • craft a space within global theoretical discourse for our collective contributions, and 
  • contemplate on the trajectories, promises, and limitations, as well as set an agenda for the future. 

We endeavor to achieve these goals by preparing a collection of selected papers from the workshop in the form of either an edited volume in a reputable international university press or a special issue in a high-impact journal.

For more information on the workshop, please visit: https://halohaloecologies.commons.yale-nus.edu.sg/

Climate Change and Food Resilience in the Philippines

Southeast Asian societies are bound to experience extreme and more frequent weather events in the future, which can have serious implications on the food security of rural and urban populations in the region. This project examines climate change impacts on food and agriculture and the ways people’s access to and utilization of food have adapted to climatic changes over time. It also explores how climate change potentially instigates new agri-food practices and foodways that may in turn have enduring changes on social and ecological landscapes. My collaborators and I are currently focusing on Capiz, a largely agrarian province in the Western Visayan region of the Philippines. Capiz is known for seafoods and a few other agricultural products, and is frequently hit by typhoons on a yearly basis.

This project is funded by the Humanities and Social Science Seed Grant of the National University of Singapore. I am collaborating with an environmental historian (Dr. Anthony Medrano) at Yale-NUS College and two environmental scientists and an agronomist at the University of the Philippines Los Banos for this project.

Comparison of Urban Food Growing in Southeast Asia

Urban food growing—in the form of community gardens, commercial urban farms, and vertical and high-tech farms—has been expanding rapidly in the megacities of Southeast Asia since the mid 2010s. For example, urban food growing has been in existence in Manila and Bangkok for many decades now, often manifesting as home and community gardening initiatives in vacant lots in public and private spaces. There is a recent surge in interest, especially with the growing food security concerns due to the pandemic. Just as in the West, popular media and a few scholarly articles have pointed to the transformative potentials of urban food growing initiatives such as urban farming and community gardening in Southeast Asia. However, a few studies have taken a more critical stance, exposing politics in these initiatives and their implications on inclusions and exclusions. There is still much to explore about the rising popularity of urban food growing in the region, such as what sort of initiatives emerge, why is there a increase in popularity, where ideas and knowledge come from, how initiatives vary from their Western (or Northern) counterparts, and whether or not they are able to deliver on their promises.

This research project is funded by Yale-NUS College and is designed and carried out in collaboration with scholars from the Center for Social Development Studies (Dr. Carl Middleton, Dr. Chana Lim, and Orapan Pratomlek) at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand. My collaborators and I are primarily interested in exploring urban food growing in two major metropolises in Southeast Asia—Manila and Bangkok—where the incidence of poverty and food insecurity is remarkably higher. We are also interested in pursuing a comparative analysis to know to what extent the historical and contemporary political economy and cultural politics of food in these two geographies help explain the possible differences in manifestations of urban food growing in the region.

“Sustainable Food” Trends in Asia and the Pacific

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

Food, Culture & Society Special Issue

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

Here is the link to the Food, Culture & Society special issue.

Cultural Politics of the Singapore Food Commons

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 food growing 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 food growing initiatives to be associated with gentrification.

The case of Singapore, however, is different. Urban food growing in the form of urban farming, for example, 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 food growers pay attention to the nourishment materialities of food for everyday consumption while performing what is expected of them in Singapore’s aesthetic politics.


Montefrio, M.J.F., Lee, X.*, and Lim, E*. Aesthetic politics and community gardens in Singapore. Urban Geography (forthcoming) (Link)

Political Economy of Agritourism in the Philippines

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.”

I collaborate with critical tourism geographer Dr. Harng Luh Sin. Our findings 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. We also observe the tendency of tourism farms to emphasize “spectacle”, raising critical questions on food security.


Montefrio, M.J.F., and Sin, H.L. (2019). Elite governance of agritourism in the Philippines. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 27(9), 1338-1354 (Link)

Montefrio, M.J.F., and Sin, H.L. Between food and spectacle: The complex reconfigurations of rural production in agritourism. Geoforum, 126, 383-393 (Link)

Cultural Politics of Alternative Food in the Philippines

There 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)

Montefrio, M.J.F. (2020). “The queen of greens” comes to the tropics: (De)territorialization of kale’s socio-material relations in the Philippines. Geoforum, 116, 24-32. (Link)

Montefrio, M.J.F., and Abasolo, A.O. (2020). From the Everyday to a Superstar and Possibly Back? Tracing the Dynamic Commoditization of Kale. In: E. McDonell, R. Wilk (Eds.), Critical approaches to superfood. Bloomsbury.

Montefrio, M.J.F. (2020). Cosmopolitan translations of food and the case of alternative eating in Manila, the Philippines. Agriculture and Human Values, 37(2), 479-494. (Link)

Montefrio, M.J.F., De Chavez, J., Contreras, A.P., and Erasga, D.S. (2020). Hybridities and awkward constructions in Philippine locavorism: Reframing global-local dynamics through assemblage thinking. Food, Culture & Society, 23(2), 117-136. (Link)

Green Economy and Food (In)Security in the Philippines

Over 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 green economy forms of rural development in Palawan. We specifically looks into the case of 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)

Green Economy Contract Farming in Palawan

The 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)