This article is the 12th in a series highlighting the work of our colleagues around the world to build agroecological practices, science and movements. Agroecology has emerged as a set of practices based on principles that guide how to produce food sustainably, as well as how to manage the social relationships that govern food production, processing, exchange and waste management in a fair manner. This article features an interview with the executive director of SEARICE, Ms. Normita Ignacio, in which she discusses the multiple challenges posed by the ever-increasing consumption of Ultra-processed Foods and Drinks and the need to rethink the future of food systems across Southeast Asia.
The Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE) is a civil society organization (CSO) working in partnership with other CSOs, as well as government, academic and research institutions, in 10 countries in South and Southeast Asia since 1977. Of these, Bhutan, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Timor-Leste are counted as least developed by the United Nations. The organization was formally registered in 1981.
The core of SEARICE work is community empowerment with particular emphasis on farmers’ rights and sustainable food systems. At the grassroots level, SEARICE works directly with farmers developing their capacities using farmer field school as an empowering learning methodology and organizing tool. The work on the ground is linked with policy advocacy at local, national and international levels. At local and national levels, SEARICE supports the crafting of laws and policies ensuring farmers’ participation in the processes. At the international level, SEARICE participates as member of both the Philippine delegation and the civil society global network engaging the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA), the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
Earlier this year, SEARICE joined IATP and other partners from Bangladesh, Haiti and LDC countries across Africa to advocate for agroecological transitions, based on the 13 principles adopted by the U.N. Committee on World Food Security (HLPE, 2019), at the LDC5 civil society forum. As co-organizers of the plenary on food and agriculture systems, we pointed out that agroecology offers powerful benefits1 for social and ecological well-being that are missed by more limited economic measures, such as income per capita.
SEARICE’s Normita Ignacio helped co-lead the breakout session on farmers seed systems at the LDC5 civil society forum, and she was again with us more recently in Oaxaca at the International Conference on Food Self-Sufficiency and Agroecology in a Multipolar World. When Normita shared their report on ultra-processed foods, I reached out to her to learn more about SEARICE’s vision regarding the future of the food systems in Southeast Asia. We discussed the increasing consumption patterns of Ultra-Processed Foods and Drinks (UPFD), the ecological, socioeconomic and public health impacts, and the policy environment that enables these trends. I learned that the bedrock of SEARICE’s food system transformation are their partners' Farmer Seed Systems, as they help to build biodiverse and nutrient rich food systems.
Shiney: In a recent policy brief, you say that Ultra-Processed Foods and Drinks (UPFDs) are rapidly changing food systems globally. Can you explain what UPFDs are?
Normita: Some of the common examples of UPFDs are carbonated soft drinks; sweet, fatty or salty packaged snacks; candies (confectionery); mass produced packaged breads and buns, cookies (biscuits), pastries, cakes and cake mixes; margarine and other spreads; sweetened breakfast cereals, fruit yoghurt and “energy” drinks; pre-prepared meat, cheese, pasta and pizza dishes; poultry and fish “nuggets” and “sticks;” sausages, burgers, hot dogs and other reconstituted meat products; powdered and packaged instant soups, noodles and desserts; baby formula; and other types of products.
The NOVA Classification System, which groups all foods according to the nature, extent and purposes of the industrial processes they undergo, defines UPFDs as the “formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, typically created by series of industrial techniques and processes,” thus the word, “ultra-processed.” The manufacture of UPFDs involves several steps and different industries. Monteiro (2019) describes that “[UPFD production] starts with the fractioning of whole foods into substances including sugars, oils and fats, proteins, starches and fibre. These substances are often obtained from a few high-yield plant foods (such as corn, wheat, soya, cane or beet) and from puréeing or grinding animal carcasses, usually from intensive livestock farming. Some of these substances are then submitted to hydrolysis, or hydrogenation, or other chemical modifications. Subsequent processes involve the assembly of unmodified and modified food substances with little if any whole food using industrial techniques such as extrusion, moulding and pre-frying. Colours, flavours, emulsifiers and other additives are frequently added to make the final product palatable or hyper-palatable. Sophisticated and attractive packaging is used, usually made of synthetic materials.”
Shiney: It sounds like ultra-processed food items commonly consumed in countries like the United States are becoming common in developing countries, like those in Asia. Where else is it happening?
Normita: Yes, according to a 2016 research study. Ultra-processed foods and drinks now dominate the food systems of high-income countries. In fact, it said that in the United States, almost two-thirds (61%) of energy in purchases by households comes from ultra-processed foods and drinks. Attracted by growth potentials there, Asian markets have been targeted vigorously by transnational food and beverage corporations (TFBCs). Consequently, the consumption of ultra-processed foods high in fat, salt and glycemic load is increasing in the region. These TFBCs began their foray into the Philippines in 1912, with the introduction of Coca Cola, a sugary carbonated drink. Progressively thereafter, particularly starting in the 1980s, TBFCs targeted Asian country markets for expansion given their high economic growth rates, rapidly urbanizing lifestyles, young and growing populations, and the adoption of export-led growth strategies favorable to foreign investment.
The study conducted by Baker and Fiel from 2000 to 2017 shows increasing consumption patterns of Ultra-Processed Foods and Drinks (UPFDs) across Asia. (See Source.)
Sales of ultra-processed food products and oils and fats, in selected Asian markets, 2000–2013 with projections to 2017. Footnotes: The product categories were selected as these have been previously identified as contributing most significantly to sugar, salt and fat consumption from ultra-processed foods in Asia; H-IC = high-income countries; U-MIC = upper-middle income countries; L-MIC = lower-middle income countries.
According to a 2019 study of total food and drink volume sales per capita in 80 countries during the period 2002‐2016, the increase in volume sales of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) were highest in South and Southeast Asia (67.3%) followed by North Africa and the Middle East (57.6%), while for ultra-processed drinks (UPDs), the increases in volume sales were highest in South and Southeast Asia at 120%, with Africa ranking next at 70.7%. The study also showed that in 2016, baked goods were the biggest contributor to UPF volume sales (13.1-44.5%), while carbonated drinks were the biggest contributor to UPD volume sales (40.2-86.0%).2
Shiney: TBFCs are targeting all countries, especially developing countries with large consumer markets. What are the country level or international policies enabling this penetration?
Normita: The neoliberal policies in the 1980s and 1990s facilitated the entry of transnational corporations into developing countries, including those marketing food and beverages, seeking growth opportunities in emerging markets. In India, for example, an early-1990s IMF bailout package required the government to put into effect an extensive liberalization of its economy. This resulted in the transformation of India’s domestic soft drink market sector. Laws prohibiting the repatriation of profits to foreign countries were first repealed, emboldening PepsiCo to enter the Indian market in 1990 and to go head to head with Parle, an Indian company that owned “Thums Up,” a cola brand with close to 85% of the domestic soft drinks market.3 This was followed in 1993 by the acquisition by the Coca-Cola Company of Parle, which made Coca-Cola the market leader.4 The resulting fierce marketing and price competition between these TBFCs had a radical impact on consumption of soft drink in the country. According to Euromonitor data, between 1998 and 2012, Indian soft drink sales quadrupled from 1.2 million to 4.4. million liters, the retail selling price declined from US$0.6 to $0.4 per liter (in fixed 2012 dollars, constant prices).
Regional trade and investment liberalization in Asia such as the bilateral and regional agreements at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have also helped to reduce barriers to the movement of investments, technologies, production capacity, raw materials and final products across borders. These allowed TFBCs to more easily penetrate the Southeast Asian markets.5 A synthesis of existing literature examining trade and investment liberalization published in 2014 found that “trade liberalization can facilitate increased trade in goods, services and investments in ways that can promote risk commodity consumption, as well as constrain the available resources and capacities of governments to enact policies and programmes to mitigate such consumption.”
Shiney: What worries you about this increasing dependence on UPFDs?
Normita: The consumption of UPFDs has been associated with a range of health problems, including obesity and various chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and dementia, contributing to noncommunicable disease epidemic in Asia.6 Aside from the health issues associated with the consumption of UPFDs, the production and consumption of UPFDs have had adverse environmental impacts.7 The production of UPFDs utilizes only a limited number of ingredients (ultra-processed flour, sugar, vegetable oil and milk) and a few crops, such as wheat, soy and corn. This focus and over concentration on a few crops to make UPFDs has been at the cost of biodiversity — other crops and a range of animals and microorganisms that have been traditionally used as food that had helped make a more wholesome and healthier diet — and public health.
Shiney: Can you speak to the specific contexts of some of the countries where your partner organisations work?
Normita: For example, oil palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia have spread to formerly forested land. Highly biodiverse tropical forests in Indonesia are being destroyed at a faster rate than in Brazil and other regions in the world. In the Philippines, we have large plantations of banana and pineapple, which are also processed into catsup and juice drink, respectively. They put a lot of Philippine species at risk of extinction because of habitat loss and degradation caused by input-intensive style of plantation agriculture for these typically exported crops. As we know, pesticide residues from banana and pineapple plantations have been found to lead to fish killings and water quality problems. They have also been documented to cause serious health consequences for both humans and wildlife, particularly birds. Runoff and manufacturing processes (e.g., washing of bananas prior to shipping) also provide entry for toxic substances into water, it has been found. If one takes a systems approach, it has been found that pests and soil organisms may also gain resistance to pesticides and other chemicals, leading to more use of inputs.
Shiney: It looks like biodiversity is an important aspect that you focus on in your campaigns?
Normita: Yes; studies have shown that such decline in biological diversity in food systems disrupts and damages bio-spheric processes and ecosystems that support reliable and sustainable food production, decreases diet diversity and poses a barrier to healthy, resilient and sustainable food systems. A study last year found that “The homogeneity of agricultural landscapes linked with the intensive use of cheap standardized ingredients is negatively affecting cultivation and consumption of long established plant food sources, including rich varieties of grains, pulses, fruits, vegetables and other whole foods, commonly produced by agrobiodiverse production systems. Some commodities used in ultra-processed food production, such as cocoa and some vegetable oils, have particularly high per kilogram species extinction rates.”
Other studies have shown that ultra-processed food production also uses large quantities of land, water, energy, herbicides and fertilizers and causes eutrophication and environmental degradation from greenhouse gas emissions and accumulation of packaging waste. As well as species loss, all this is liable to cause ecosystem collapse, further affecting biodiversity. Ultra-processed reconstituted meat products, such as hot dogs and chicken nuggets, cause additional agriculture biodiversity loss. Such ingredients of animal origin usually come from confined animals (mostly from a small number of livestock breeds) fed on concentrates largely made with ingredients from the same few high-yielding crops used in the manufacture of plant-based ultra-processed foods.
I should add that this commodification and commercialization of food systems by TFBCs, as well as the market-driven approaches adopted by governments in their food policies, has also failed to address hunger globally. If prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 690 million people were hungry, COVID-19 added approximately 130 million more people to the world’s hungry, pushed uncounted millions more to the brink of hunger, and put one-third of food and farming livelihoods at risk.
Basically, food systems worldwide have become more processed and less diverse, leading to sick people and environmental destruction. This was caused by the industrialization of food systems, technological change and globalization, the expansion and growing market and political power of transnational food and beverage corporations, and their global sourcing and production networks. Studies have shown that developments in the retail sector have also contributed to growing and diversifying ultra-processed food markets, particularly in lower-income and middle-income settings. It has also been argued that the “unprecedented rates of biodiversity loss too, demonstrates the need for a rapid transition to dietary patterns that are rich in varieties of plant-sourced, fresh and minimally processed foods.” There is an urgent and continuing need to make people aware of the disastrous impact of UPFDs on people’s health and on the environment. The FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO) have been warning about the effect of dietary patterns on human health and on ecosystems.
At SEARICE we believe that there is a need to de-commodify food and food systems and to take back control from TFBCs. Fulfilling farmers’ rights and supporting traditional farmer food systems of Indigenous peoples and local communities can reverse all the negative impact of commodified food and food systems.
Shiney: At SEARICE, how do you go about doing that? Where do you start?
Normita: At the core of farmers’ food systems is the farmers’ seed system. Seed systems comprise all the processes in which seeds are produced, saved, exchanged and sold. Farmers were the first to develop seed systems. For thousands of years, small farmers conserved, developed, used, exchanged and sold seeds — the bedrock of agricultural biodiversity. The corporate takeover of seeds, including the imposition of proprietary rights over seeds, such as intellectual property rights and plant breeder’s rights, is part of the commodification of food systems and needs to be addressed. Given the serious decline of ecosystems functions, and the health problems that come with it, it is time to move away from business-oriented and quick technofix mindsets and focus on and prioritize the development of farmer food systems.
There is a high degree of diversity of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) in farms nurtured by smallholder and Indigenous farmers. Diversity is important especially in the face of crop losses due to climate change and other human-driven risks such as wars and developed resistance of plants to chemical pesticides. Diversity provides the necessary resource so that other crops can be bred to withstand pests and diseases, or to withstand extreme heat or extreme cold. Seeds must be placed in the control of small farmers to combat these risks. As the IPES-Food report in 2017 said, farmers’ seed systems contribute 80-90% of farmers’ seed requirements, depending on the crop. Farmers growing local varieties and nurturing wild crop relatives ensure that seeds are selected and adapted to local soil and climatic conditions. There is a need to protect these farmer seed systems from corporate takeover to withstand the dangers posed by climate change.
The practice of smallholder farmers of continuously saving and storing, sharing and reusing seeds inherently involves a process of selection and conservation to meet the food needs of the community. Small farmers understand the relationship between a sustainable and healthy environment and food needs. Consequently, small farmers use farming practices that do not destroy the environment. There is a need to strengthen such food systems and move away from corporate farming that rely on a few monocrops, cause the disappearance of other crops and destroy the environment, as well as from the commodification of food systems. Instead, global agendas need to support farmers’ rights to seeds so that the right of all persons to food and to a healthy and sustainable environment can be fulfilled.
UPFDs are not discussed in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which puts upon states the responsibility to sustain agricultural biodiversity for future needs. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) also leaves out discussion on UPFDs and their impact on the conservation, development and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. Promoting and supporting farmer food systems both at the local and national levels, can better protect the human rights of everyone to health, a healthy and sustainable environment and the accompanying right of people to a variety of ecosystems services. SEARICE focuses on the power and importance of Farmers’ Seed Systems in addressing these challenges through agroecological transitions of the food systems, ensuring biological and cultural survival.
Benefits include healthy soils and well managed freshwater supplies to protect the ecosystems and biodiversity that provide adaptive capacity as local conditions change. Instead of pursuing efficiency and seeking to squeeze profit all along the value chain by externalizing costs and minimizing the role of labor, agroecology is focused on the well-being of the whole community, including public health. With its emphasis on local distribution and storage infrastructure, locally controlled food systems that protect and promote social values (culture, identity, social ties, social and gender equity) and (healthy, diversified, seasonally and culturally appropriate) diets, agroecological transition — that offers a science-based approach building on farmers’ knowledge, amplifying rather than displacing context-specific knowledge — is core to Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty, the panel emphasized.
Baker, P., Kay, A. & Walls, H. Trade and investment liberalization and Asia’s noncommunicable disease epidemic: a synthesis of data and existing literature. Global Health 10, 66 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12992-014-0066-8
Fernanda Helena Marrocos Leite, Neha Khandpur, Giovanna Calixto Andrade, Kim Anastasiou, Phillip Baker, Mark Lawrence, Carlos Augusto Monteiro. Ultra-processed foods should be central to global food systems dialogue and action on biodiversity.