The Collaborative Potential of Alternative Food Movements Between Taiwan and the Philippines

Written by Shun-Nan Chiang.

Image Description: The entrance of the school garden in the Bagumbayan Elementary School, Santa Cruz, Laguna, Philippines, Photo Courtesy of Author

Taiwan and the Philippines have various points of connections regarding agricultural development. When I conducted my dissertation research on agriculture-nutrition linkages in the Philippines, I frequently encountered references to Taiwan in the Philippine agriculture sector. I was told by a Filipino geographer researching the Philippine agritourism policy that the government’s primary model was Taiwan’s farm tourism. Indeed, I soon discovered that a farm owner I met in a conference toured around Taiwan with a group of business owners to survey Taiwan’s farm tourism. The day I finished my fieldwork in the Philippines, I also met some governmental officers from Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture and other agencies. They have been collaborating on a project with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) since 2015. 

There are even more salient historical connections here. While IRRI was well-known for its role in the development of the high-yielding rice variety, IR8 — the key component of the so-called Asian Green Revolution — the Taiwanese parental variety of IR8 was introduced by the geneticist Te-Tzu Chang (張德慈), who managed the IRRI’s Rice Germplasm Centre until 1991. Around the same period, another model of agricultural development also arrived in the Philippines enroute from Taiwan. With the support of U.S. funding, the Chinese rural education promoter Yang-Chu James Yen initiated the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement in 1952. He also established the International Rural Reconstruction Institute (IIRR) in 1960. It is worth noting that Dr Yen was also key to establishing the Sino-American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction (JCRR, 農復會), which played a crucial role in Taiwan’s post-WWII agricultural development. What is more intriguing was another more-than-human connection (other than genes) around the same period. The golden apple snail, introduced from Latin America enroute from Taiwan to the Philippines – recognised initially as the source of protein – soon became a pest for rice fields.

Beyond these historical connections, there are also many potential connections between Taiwan and the Philippines regarding the development of their alternative food movements. Alternative food movement refers to activism that explores other modes of the food system that move away from capitalist or industrial agricultural development. Having researched agricultural development in the Philippines and having participated in Taiwan’s alternative food movement, I have noticed many potential points of dialogue and comparison between the movements in both countries.  

The first example is the anti-GMO movement. In Taiwan, consumers’ groups are the main actors in the anti-GMO movement, and their primary goal is food safety issues. In recent years, one famous campaign concerned the push for the regulatory restriction of GMO ingredients, predominantly from soybeans, to be used in school meals. In contrast, the Philippines’ anti-GMO movement is usually led by farmers’ groups and focused on food sovereignty issues and the rejection of the capitalist tendency in agricultural development. Thus, the difference between these two movements may be complementary to each other. For example, Taiwan’s anti-GMO movement usually does not have the resources and opportunities to introduce GMO production issues since it is forbidden in Taiwan. However, the Philippines’ anti-GMO movement experience could shed light on this aspect and greatly expand the Taiwanese anti-GMO movement’s perspective. In contrast, the anti-GMO movement in Taiwan could also strengthen the Philippine’s anti-GMO activism discourse by addressing the transnational dynamics on food safety issues.

The second example is school gardening. In Taiwan, some NGOs and legislative representatives are pushing for the legislation of the Food and Agriculture Education Act (食農教育法). One of the key interventions based on the Act would be the promotion of school gardening. There were also different school gardening projects scattered around Taiwan in the past decade. It may be surprising for some activists in Taiwan that the Philippine government mandated school gardening in all the public schools in 2007. Following the policy’s enactment, several NGOs, such as IIRR, have also worked with schools in different regions to improve their garden operations. Like the anti-GMO movement, school gardening projects in these two countries have different focuses and share similar agendas. The collaborations between school gardening projects in these two countries could serve as a good opportunity for mutual learning. Indeed, the comparative study of school gardening experience in these two countries may also generate valuable insights for theorising alternative food movements in the Asia-Pacific region.

The third example is the development of the organic agriculture sector. At this point, the Philippines and Taiwan have the highest organic farmland percentages in East Asia. Although these two countries have a similar farmland structure, they have developed quite different certification regimes and have different market focuses. While Taiwan’s organic agriculture sector relies on third-party certification and is mainly focused on the domestic market, the Philippine sector is about promoting Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS). Intriguingly, they are focused on the transnational market. Meanwhile, the diverse types of farming techniques developed and implemented in these two countries’ organic agriculture sector are also worth further investigation.

The final case is the cooperative economy. The idea of cooperative economic has re-emerged in Taiwan, and Taiwan’s alternative food movement groups are leading the way, with the Homemakers Union Consumers Co-op (主婦聯盟合作社) as the most successful example. In the Philippines, the cooperative economy is not only an idea but a common practice in rural areas. The academic community in the Philippines also dedicate efforts to study related theories and practices. The University of Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) has held international conferences on the cooperative economy since 2012. It could be fruitful to have more collaborations between academia and the NGOs of these two countries for the issue of the cooperative economy.

To sum up, the collection of these four examples demonstrates much potential for analysing and comparing alternative food movements in Taiwan and the Philippines. Thus, my article also serves as a call for more research and activism that facilitates cross-border collaboration, along with continued theorisation based on transnational perspectives.

Shun-Nan Chiang is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of California Santa Cruz. His research explores the dynamics between the historical formation of the global food system, the politics of techno-social innovations, and the cultural-scientific construction of dietary knowledge. His current project explores how the infrastructural environment enables the co-emergence of five distinct types of agriculture-based innovations for nutrition in the contemporary and historical Philippine context.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan-Philippines relations, which was coordinated with help from Shun-Nan Chiang, a PhD candidate in sociology at UCSC.

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