By Duncan Graham
Nearly 20 million Indonesians are still malnourished, 28 percent of the country’s children are underweight and 42 percent suffer from stunted growth, according to UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
How can this be in a nation that has the planet’s most fertile island in its vast archipelago and millions of skilled farmers harboring centuries of local wisdom?
If a country can’t produce and distribute enough nutritious food at prices the poor can pay, where can it turn? To rethinking the way it does agriculture — or importing from those with know how.
Thailand and Vietnam, with far advanced mechanical farming methods, are selling rice to Indonesia — an internationally awkward admittance of policy failure. These and other disturbing facts have led foreign and local agricultural economists to suggest Indonesia rethinks ways to achieve food security.
The report “Feeding Asia” by the Perth-based policy think tank USAsia was released in May at the Jakarta “In the Zone” forum attended by NGOs and politicians, including former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
The report says: “We must collaborate better on agricultural research and the diffusion of valuable knowledge and methods. We need to create more efficient supply networks in the region.”
On the surface a noble aim. The needs are pressing, and recognized by Joko “Jokowi” Widodo when campaigning for the presidency. All data continues to show demand growing, resources shrinking and costs rising as they have for the past 13 years.
A shortage of basic commodities, or prices beyond reach of the majority, can create serious communal strife. Rice isn’t just a carbohydrate — it’s a social and political force.
The 32-page report was prepared by Australian “innovation consultancy” Knowledge Center. It highlights the positive impact on India and Pakistan of the 1960s Green Revolution which introduced new strains of wheat, ramped production and saved millions from starvation.
So the report’s proposals have been packaged as a Second Green Revolution. Not the ideal title as it recalls the days when change was pushed by Soeharto’s Bimbingan Masyarakat (Bimas — community guidance) program.
Farmers tend to be conservative folk with long memories. Even today villagers recall the military backed Green Revolution campaigns of the 1970s forcing them to use the Peta and Pelita high-yielding hybrids, expensive artificial fertilizers and pesticides of which they had little understanding.
At first yields increased dramatically and Indonesia stopped importing rice. But the downsides included nitrogen runoff polluting rivers, the balance of nature upset and the socially-corrosive loss of autonomous decision-making.
Minor pests, like hoppers, became a major problem. Government subsidies for fertilizers were withdrawn. Maladministration was rife. El Niño weather changes caused unforeseen upsets.
State Logistics Agency (Bulog) was created as a government agency to hold stocks and stabilize food prices, restricting farmers’ ability to trade on the open market.
Now Indonesia is again a rice importer, an undesirable situation in a nation prickly about “sovereign rights” and its “great power” image with a population projected to reach 322 million by 2050. By then more than 70 percent will be urbanites.
So who is going to grow the food, how and where? While Java’s fertility is famous, the outer islands have dry acidic soils and limited rainfall.
There won’t even be enough water for irrigation if the report writers are right, while clogged infrastructure will remain till the government resolves to fix roads and rail.
Delegates learned that 35 percent of food is wasted because fresh produce can’t reach householders. In East Java’s highlands bundles of vegetables are carried downhill on bicycles because pick-ups can’t reach market gardens on unmade roads.
Even big urban supermarkets use small van deliveries; the roads don’t allow big trucks which could reduce costs through economies of scale.
Refrigerated transport remains rare in rural Indonesia. Fish, fowl and beef traders in traditional markets have no cool rooms. Sellers fan meats to ward off flies and keep milk in styrofoam boxes. They rely on early-morning shoppers to clear stock before it goes bad and becomes a health issue.
Another waste is in reticulation, with nearly half of Indonesia’s piped water reportedly lost during transmission.
Growers with no clear land title can’t access essential credit. The report says “many small holdings are not properly registered, especially outside Java; less than 25 percent of rural landholders have registered tenure.”
Policy planners considering all these interlocking issues also have to weigh in fickle weather. Climate change is creating droughts and floods in areas where extremes were once rare.
Nationalists may wince but Indonesia already relies on imports. Western Australia is Indonesia’s granary because wheat can’t thrive in the tropics. The Northern Territory, with its vast pastoral plains, is the Republic’s offshore beef ranch.
An example of positive partnership has been seed potatoes from Western Australia boosting yields in Java from 10 to 35 tons per hectare. Speakers warned proposed tariffs could threaten this advance.
One possible solution discussed at the forum is “urban farming”. Vegetables are grown hydroponically using recycled water in large climate-controlled buildings close to markets and labor.
Known as Indonesia Berkebun the farms already operate in parts of Jakarta and other major cities, but only industrial scale projects will make a difference. Foreign investment in agriculture can be a politically touchy issue.
The report and forum’s take-home message is that the dream of self-sufficiency cannot be achieved while the population soars and little is done to ease the difficulties. Whatever the name, new systems will need farmers on board, not off side.
Getting belligerent with a country which feeds you is not the smartest idea. Nor is protectionism which preserves inefficiencies. Collaboration delivers harmony along with food.
The writer is a New Zealand journalist who lives in Malang, East Java.