Written by I-Liang Wahn
Last year we saw several times, and in different ways, how food became the focus of political debates. For instance, Taiwan held a referendum about banning pork imports with ractopamine, a feed additive used in the US. Voters are asked to balance between health risks and Taiwan’s trade relation with the US.
Food plays a central role in Taiwanese culture, with the evolution of Taiwanese cuisine mixing multiple historical influences and constituting unique identities. But food is also increasingly a political topic and a field for solidarity economies. The politics of food was especially brought to the fore in three developments last year: a series of political events around food, the celebration of a milestone by two independent food media, and an academic conference devoted to food activism.
In an interesting parallel, China introduced successive waves of bans on Taiwanese fruit exports for finding “harmful creatures” in previous exports. First, it was pineapples, then sugar apples and finally, wax apples were also banned. These bans are interpreted by politicians and the public alike as examples of China putting political pressure on Taiwan. As a response, domestic consumers are asked to buy and eat more of these fruits to support farmers. The pineapple became a symbol of freedom, just as milk tea symbolised democracy in 2020 in solidarity with student movements in Hong Kong and Thailand.
The use of consumption to show solidarity is also manifested in the popular food box schemes during the pandemic. When Taiwan went into soft lockdown, food boxes containing rice, vegetables, fruits and, in some cases, meats were sold and delivered to consumers as an alternative to shopping from supermarkets and traditional markets. These initiatives were organised by farmers’ associations, local governments, and even department stores to help local farmers, who originally supplied restaurants and school canteens.
These instances illustrate how food acquired political meanings and how Taiwanese consumers are exploring the socio-political influences of their consumption. But it is important to note that those creative actions were not only reactions to trade issues or the pandemic but were built on decade long activism.
People’s concerns for the relationship between food, farmers, and rural communities have long focused on independent food media. Two such media—News&Market and the Green Sprout Magazine, stood out last year. The former celebrated its 10th anniversary, while the latter celebrated its 100th volume in 2021.
News&Market is a website publishing news as well as in-depth investigations of agricultural policies, rural, and environmental issues related to food since 2011. Creatively combining ‘news’ with ‘market,’ News&Market is financially supported by its online platform selling selected local food by smallholders using environmentally friendly farming methods. Due to its critical investigations, it quickly became a popular platform for the public to understand agricultural policies and at times put policymakers in a position to explain and adjust policies.
In an interview recounting its ten-year journey, News&Market founder, and editor Ms Feng explained that News&Market wants to help urban consumers see the beauty of agriculture and rural communities. For her, mutual understanding between urban consumers and rural farmers and fishers can help people better understand the problems of agriculture and see the alternatives Taiwan can pursue. Thus News&Market also became an important platform for different kinds of food activism. For example, News&Market created a special series on the impact of Covid-19 on agriculture. In that series of more than 70 articles, readers can understand the struggles of farmers and fishers, as well as the local actions and creativity in addressing food inequalities.
Another important food media is Green Sprout magazine, launched in 2003 when Taiwan joined WTO, and domestic agriculture was at a turning point. With contributors from scholars and activists, it introduced concepts and practices such as community-supported agriculture, food sovereignty, and agroecology to its readers. Green Sprout is most admirable because it is supported solely by subscription and donation without advertisement and government funding. As the editor A-Way Shu, a sociologist, proudly claims in an interview, Green Sprout is a love letter he wrote to Taiwanese farmers.
In the online meeting celebrating its 100th volume, many readers thanked Green Sprout for opening their eyes to the values of agriculture and food. One of the most inspiring sections of the magazine, looking abroad, introduces readers to peasant movements and alternative food initiatives in South America, Japan, Southeast Asia, and China. This makes the magazine a rare publication to go beyond agriculture as an industry and connect domestic actions with international activism concerned with class and inequality in the food system. Recently it has been discussing and promoting the idea of Terroir for local foods, again inspired by international precedents, as a way to preserve tradition and peasant farming.
Alongside the food, media is the growing types and numbers of action networks around agriculture and food. Since the formation of the Homemaker consumer cooperatives and the Cropholder Club in the early 2000s, consumer activists and farmers are continuously experimenting with ways to connect consumers with food producers. A variety of initiatives such as community-supported agriculture, farmers’ markets, and community kitchens or green restaurants proliferated over the years. They emphasised the civic and ecological values of food. They experimented with different designs of food market exchange to promote environmentally friendly production on the one hand and to change cultures of food consumption on the other hand.
Researchers are also using the concept of solidarity economy to identify economic practices characterised by social and ecological considerations. For example, the sociology department at Tunghai University runs an annual Social and Solidarity Economies Conference. Last year the theme was ‘perspectives of food in action’. We invited practitioners as well as academics to discuss diverse ways to organise food production, exchange, and consumption. We heard interesting works from the solidarity group of ‘new farmers’ in Yilan, the roles played by retail such as Carrefour in supporting cage-free eggs, and the innovation of Green Dining Guide that encourages restaurants to source ingredients and develop dishes from local organic farmers.
Moreover, these initiatives are inspiring efforts in rural revitalisation. At the conference, we heard a new generation of beer brewers and soy sauce makers trying to revive traditional food as a way to rebrand the origin of produce. We also heard presenters talking about how the cultivation of traditional foods helps preserve indigenous culture. Others show a creative combination of redistribution and reciprocity principles in organising the production and sales of local produces. Food is gradually taken as a new angle to imagine a different rural place and a different relation between humans and nature.
These events in 2021 highlight Taiwan as a fertile ground for research on food politics and the role of the consumer in driving the transformation of food. They offer an interesting angle to understand consumer societies in East Asia. Food politics not only features in agricultural policies but in the vitality of solidarity economies and independent media. They redesign market platforms, reframe food values, and reimagine rural places. This has made food in Taiwan more than an element of its shifting identities and cultures as it also shows a focus of solidarity and activism.
I-Liang Wahn is an Associate Professor in Sociology Department at Tunghai University. His research explores consumer societies and the development of alternative food networks in East Asia. He has published on the design and practices of farmers’ markets in Beijing and Taiwan, as well as the role of media in framing consumer morality and action.
This article was published as part of a special issue titled ‘Agriculture and Food Studies’.