Why Indonesia must reduce its dependence on rice as a staple food

Diversification can increase food security by mitigating the threat of crop failure. Indonesia can tap suboptimal land to grow many types of alternative crops such as sago.

sago palm CIFOR
A woman extracts edible material from a sago palm trunk in Maluku, Indonesia. Ulet Ifansasti/CIFOR via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Global food supply chains are being disrupted as Covid-19 lockdowns to contain the virus have limited the movement of people and goods across regions and countries.

Disruptions in distribution have hindered food producers in getting their harvest to consumers. The immediate impacts are food stock depletion in some areas, and undistributed food that is wasted in others. In regions where food stock was depleted, food prices rose.

High dependence on rice

Indonesia is one country—but not the only one—that  is highly dependent on one staple food. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, two-thirds of the world’s staple foods are dominated by three primary commodities: Wheat, rice and corn.

Staple food choices are influenced by climate conditions and farming limitations. In Asia, rice has become the primary food because the climate and soil promote rice cultivation.

In the 1970s, a food diversification campaign to reduce rice dependency was aggressively promoted by the Indonesian government with the issue of a Presidential Instruction in 1979. The aim of food diversification was to improve nutrition of the people. This goal, however, was not accomplished because it contradicted the government’s rice self-sufficiency programme at the time.

Recently, the threat of a food crisis, especially in rice stock, has prompted the Indonesian government to develop an agenda for a mega food project in Central Kalimantan.

Food security issues arising from Covid-19 have raised public awareness of the importance of food diversification and self-sufficiency, and the risk of being heavily dependent on a single staple food.

Efforts to diversify through campaigns and regulations have not brought significant results. There has been some shift in consumption to non-rice staple foods, namely wheat, but that is an imported commodity that comes with supply risks.

The government plays an important role in changing the food consumption patterns of Indonesians. While there have been efforts to encourage diversification at the community and regional levels, it continues to place a priority on rice as the national staple food. More can be done to support the agricultural production of a variety of foods and promote the consumption of alternative staples.

Sago an alternative to rice

Food diversification can be done in two ways. One is by increasing the production of more types of commodities. The other is centered on processing, especially of non-rice crops, so that they have added economic, nutritional or social value.

Diversification of carbohydrate sources must begin with the exploration of the types of local food substitutes that are less consumed. Indonesia has many local foods, especially carbohydrate sources, that can be introduced to the wider community. Some examples are sago, sorghum and various types of tubers such as cassava and taro.

The nation accounts for 83 per cent of the world’s land on which the sago palm is found, at 5.4 million hectares and with the potential to reach 100 million tonnes of sago production annually. This indicates a huge opportunity for sago to become an alternative to rice. However, it is not currently on the government’s to-do list.

The government’s low commitment to leverage sago can be seen from its failure to absorb sago production in the Tohor River in Riau for local consumption, when supply piled up earlier this year because of export constraints due to restrictions on movements and trading operations.

The current diet trend in Indonesia suggests noodles made from wheat are the most preferred alternative to rice. This has led Indonesia’s wheat imports to reach 11.5 million tonnes per year. But if supplier countries decide to stop exporting wheat, Indonesia will face a domino effect in its food system.

Therefore, alongside a reduction in rice and wheat consumption, food diversification means increasing local staple food substitutes such as tubers and sago.

One initiative is by the Indonesian Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT), which has developed sago flour as a substitute for wheat in noodles. The innovation is expected to meet demand from the Indonesian people, who are the second-highest instant noodle consumers in the world. There have been many other innovations that mix sago flour and cassava flour as a substitute for wheat flour in making cakes, noodles and other flour-based foods.

Mitigating risk of crop failure

The opportunity for food diversification in Indonesia is enormous and promising. Several regions in Indonesia are well-placed to help achieve this potential.

In Papua, more people are beginning to consume sago again and, in the East Nusa Tenggara region, people are starting to eat sorghum.

Indonesia has sufficient land potential to grow many types of substitute food crops, and it is estimated that there are about 102 million hectares of suboptimal land with potential for agriculture development. As modifying suboptimal land to grow rice is a long process that takes at least five years and much experimentation, it may be more economical to grow alternative crops such as sago instead.

Diversification can increase food security by mitigating the threat of crop failure for staple food commodities, especially rice. Scaling up the production and consumption of alternative crops also means their prices can be lowered. The price of flour from local ingredients, such as tapioca and sago, are currently higher than from rice and wheat by up to twofold.

Relying on local resources will benefit the economy and equip the various regions in the country to develop their own resilient food supply chains.

Nationally, the demand for fish, meat, fruit and vegetables is increasing every year; this is a positive indicator that Indonesians’ diets are getting more nutritious. Now, diversification must extend to carbohydrate sources.

Julian Trilaksana is associate author at the Tay Juhana Foundation, a non-profit which advocates the conversion and cultivation of suboptimal lands into productive lands. He graduated in public administration from Brawijaya University. 

Nurul Ihsan is a researcher at the foundation. He has a master’s degree in geography from Gadjah Mada University.

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