Perspectives Asia No. 5: Politics of Food

Perspectives Asia: Politics of Food

by Katrin Altmeyar 

Katrin Altmeyer is Director of the Asia Department, Heinrich Boell Foundation

Asia’s rapid economic development in the last two decades fundamentally altered the patterns of food consumption and availability for large parts of Asian societies. Despite the growth in wealth and the correlating increase in calorie intake, many governments still have difficulties providing food security to large portions of the population. Impressive growth rates and the rise of metropolises cannot hide the fact that Asia remains home to three-fifths of the world’s undernourished people, amounting to 512 million adults and children that consume too few calories. When it comes to the subject of food policies, Asia has two faces. While the rural and agrarian parts of Asia continue to struggle with old, familiar problems, such as the lack of access to food and nutrient deficiency, the richer, urban and more industrialized Asia is confronted with a different form of malnutrition stemming from unhealthy food products. Policy­makers are thus forced to think about how to meet the different nutritional needs of people and what it means for a society when traditional food production and consumption habits are suddenly replaced.

This wide range of topics shows that food politics in Asia has become more than simply a matter of production and distribution. In effect, politics in Asia often deals with ethical, cultural and environmental disputes between different stakeholders when it comes to questions of food and nutrition. Establishing modern value chains and introducing new food products bears the risk of driving out small-scale famers, while new eating patterns might conflict with religious beliefs. At the same time, Asia’s growing appetite presses increasingly hard against the finite bounds of the planet’s natural resources, and in some regions, the consequences of climate change have forced governments to consider alternative approaches to food production. As a result, international actors need to work together to improve food availability and safety, put pressure on decision makers, empower local communities and find solutions for a healthier and self-selected diet for all.

This publication seeks to illustrate some conflicting issues in the field of food and nutrition in Asia. The contributions from across the continent highlight a selection of fields, where political action is needed to ensure that there is enough food on people's plate, which is also healthy and nutritious.

Power over nutrition and people manifests itself on different levels: on a macro-international level, on state policy levels and even on a micro-level within households. A prominent example of how global food consumption influences local livelihoods is palm oil. The appetite for junk food in both developed and emerging countries is fueling the demand for palm oil from Asia. In her article, Janice Ser Huay Lee discusses how the growing appetite for crisps, frozen pizzas and other processed foods affects the nutrition of oil palm plantation workers, who have adapted their diets to the changing environment, as tropical rainforests have been cleared to make way for palm oil plantations.

In India, the question of food has always been a question of ideology and belief, and this is all the more true since the Hindu-nationalist party BJP has been in power. There are national conflicts over who has the right to decide what others eat. The general illegitimacy of eating meat, not just beef, but also pork and chicken, brings a different angle to what vegetarianism means when it is politicized. Veena Shatrugna argues in an interview that vegetarianism, forced upon India by the ruling class, and the morals associated with this diet are causes of mal­nutrition among the poor.

This openly political conflict around food is in contrast to what Abid Suleri describes in his article on food security in neighboring Pakistan, where explicit food policies are not popular, as illustrated by the failure of the Zero Hunger Program. He analyses how political power plays have undermined honorable goals to effectively fight food insecurity. Although the issues of food safety and availability are important concerns for the Pakistani people, they are not issues that draw crowds to the voting booths; as a result, they are only addressed as part of the broader issue of poverty eradication.

Being able to provide safe and sufficient food for your own population is a central question across Asia that is answered differently from state to state. Shefali Sharma and Ginger Fletcher Santillan from the Institute of Agriculture and International Trade Policy (IATP) compare different approaches, with a focus on the big powers, India and China. The two countries emphasize dif­ferent strategies, but both show a tendency toward more industrial food production, which calls into question the future of small-scale farmers.

Small-scale farmers in Myanmar, where the economy and politics have just recently been liberalized, are witnessing rapid changes driven by international investors. Laws are being drafted to attract foreign investment, but the benefits are one-sided. Nwet Kay Khine analyses the development of contract farming in Myanmar and how it affects the livelihoods of small-scale farmers.

While Myanmar tries to improve food security by letting investors in, its big neighboring country, China, is encouraging companies to invest abroad. Chinese outward agricultural investments have been growing exponentially in the last years, drawing a lot of critical media attention about the consequences for host countries. However, according to Feifei Cai, these concerns are overrated and a more objective assessment of Chinese agricultural investments shows that there can be more opportunities than risks to them. She therefore argues that Chi­nese investment flows should be more welcomed on an international level.

On the household-level, Weeda Mehran from Afghanistan argues that nutrition is a matter of gender. As one form of violence against women, access to food can be denied, through norms and laws. A revision of the Afghan legal code appears crucial in order to end food discrimination against women.

Gender also plays a role in Asia's street food culture. Florentinus Gregorius Winarno explains that women who generate income by finding a niche in the informal sector are often the suppliers of street food. By contrast, poor hygiene and an insufficiently diverse diet may pose a health risk for women who work all day long in factories. In Cambodia, for example, the unbal­anced nutrition of garment factory workers has led to sudden mass fainting, resulting in protests for healthier food that were led by women. Street food may result in a better diet as it is cheap, offers diverse meals, and many female factory workers rely on street food for their daily calorie intake. The photo series that accompanies this article illustrates some implications of food safety and availability. It shows who's eating and who's selling and, thus visualizing some food-related power structures that inform everyday life in Asia. 

Please find the full publication here:hbs_-_perspectives_-_asia_5_-_en_-_online_-_170321.pdf