Food security, food safety and globalization: Asian perspectives

Posted by Michael Woods, 16th October 2014

The clamour by many bioscientists and some politicians to increase agricultural producivity through biotechnology as a response to the challenge of ‘global food security’ is often justified by reference to the need to feed the expanding populations of China and India. Yet, in Asia, discussion among food activists seems commonly to focus more on questions about food safety and food supply chains, with evident scepticism about the promise of biotechnology and distrust of transnational corporations. As McDonalds recently announced its first operating loss in Japan in 11 years trading in the country after being caught up in a food contamination scare in its Chinese supply chain, it is clear that agri-food globalization in Asia involves dynamics and challenges that are not neccessarily the same as those experienced in the west, and that we need to listen more closely to perspectives from Asia.

This was one of the aims of a conference this week in Hong Kong on ‘Food and Sustainability: Production, Consumption and Food Relations in Asia’, organized by Chan Yuk Wah of the City University of Hong Kong and colleagues. The conference included papers from researchers in Hong Kong, China, India, Japan, Taiwan and Cambodia, and a number of thematic papers by invited international speakers, including myself, to provide a broader global context. In my own presentation, I reiterated the core principle of GLOBAL-RURAL that globalization is reproduced through local places as starting point for critiquing notions of global food governance. Although agri-food globalization has been associated by some commentators with a new neoliberal ‘food regime’ based on international and privatized systems of governance and regulation, I argued that the notion the discourse of global food governance is undermined by two fundamental instabilities in transnational agri-food assemblages.

Firstly, as food production and consumption are grounded in particular places, attempts to develop new ‘solutions’ to food problems at a global scale can flounder on the dissent and opposition of local actors – as seen, for example, in the resistance of Indian farmers to GM crops – as well as on the unreliability of nation states whose adherence to neoliberal ideals mat be compromised by geopolitical or domestic security concerns, as exhibited in the decision by several countries to restrict exports of rice or grain during the 2008 food crisis. Secondly, global food governance is also disrupted by the unruly behaviour of non-human components in food assemblages, especially the unintended incorporation of contaminants or pathogens that subvert the careful coding of commercial food products by making them unsafe, as in the McDonalds example mentioned above. These two uncertainties, I suggested, are a key part of the story of agri-food globalization in Asia.

Interestingly, these points resonated with the contributions of the other thematic papers. Hugh Campbell’s excellent plenary lecture highlighted the failure of attempts to broker multilateral international trade agreements involving food and agriculture, with the latest WTO effort finally being scuppered by India’s insistence on maintaining food stockpiles, and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership likely to collapse under Japanese and American reluctance to reform farm subsidies. More likely, he argued, are bilateral agreements along the lines of the China-New Zealand trade deal, which he suggested is in effect a food supply arrangement for China. Such agreements would not however provide the global food system with resilience, and Hugh argued instead for an alternative approached based on the accommodation of polycultural food systems, as well as principles of democratisation and ecology.

The potential for alternative approaches was also demonstrated in papers by Steffanie Scott on alternative food movements in China, including community supported agriculture, which has developed with tacit state sponsorship in the absence of a vibrant civil society and responds to middle class concerns over food safety; and by activist Lee Aruelo from the Third World Network, who described how local governments in the Philippines have successfully created ‘GM-free zones’ by introducing ordinances supporting organic agriculture and the banning GM as incompatible with the legal protection afforded organic farming. Bill Pritchard’s paper meanwhile further illustrated the complex grounding of agri-food globalization with discussion of food insecurity in India and the limitations of ‘trickle-down’ effects from value chain modernization in a model of compressed development.

The more-than-human and expressive components of global agri-food assemblages. meanwhile, were implicitly picked up in Michael Carolan’s fascinating paper exploring the “visceral momentum of (food) regimes”, which noted, among other arguments, that globalized regimes have molded our expectations of taste and texture to an extent that hinders the efforts of alternative food movements to convince consumers and regulators that traditional and artisan foods with strong and unusual tastes and textures are safe and acceptable, and that even the presence of bacteria might in some cases be appropriate, contrary to the “scorched-Earth” approach to food safety of the USDA.

Recognizing and welcoming diversity of taste, texture, shape, colour, smell and so on in the messy complexity of food is essential if the global food regime is to be weaned off its tendency towards standardization and nudged towards polycultural food systems as proposed in Hugh’s talk.

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