Feeding Indonesia
Published: Oct 25, 2013
Debates rage about the best way to feed Indonesia's growing population- Gunawan

 In 2007/08 the world witnessed a global food crisis as the cost of food staples like rice and soybeans spiked suddenly. In Indonesia, riots broke out in January 2008 over the rise of soybean prices (soybeans are the basic ingredients for the Indonesian staple foods tempe and tofu). Then in March of the same year people took to the streets to protest against increasing rice prices. Concerned these protests might escalate, the government decided to increase subsidies for food by US$280 million. Global food prices have since stabilised, but this shock put food security at the top of the policy agenda for the entire Southeast Asian region.

In Indonesia when policymakers and commentators talk about food security, they mean ensuring all people have access to sufficient, healthy and affordable food. This ambitious goal has implications for all parts of society ranging from the economy, to agriculture and the environment. Because food security has such a wide scope, it is also a very controversial issue in Indonesia, pitting those with opposing ideological positions against each other. Since Indonesia’s independence politicians, scientists, economists and activists have debated how best to feed Indonesia’s masses. At one end of the spectrum are those who argue open markets and free trade are the answer to ensuring affordable, accessible food for all. Others, however, believe agrarian reform, especially distribution of land to poor farmers, and support for local agricultural markets are keys for achieving true food security. This edition of Inside Indonesia explores the range of perspectives that characterise contemporary debate on food security in Indonesia.

Food security, food self-sufficiency and food sovereignty

John McCarthy and Zahari Zen open the edition with a discussion of the difference between food security and food self-sufficiency. While Indonesia’s economy continues to grow, the authors show how growth is uneven and food security looms as a threat for many poor Indonesians. The government’s current focus on self-sufficiency is at the expense of the security of individual households, and McCarthy and Zen argue for a more ‘activist’ approach to food insecurity by focusing on the development of agrarian policy. The most vulnerable Indonesians are poor farmers, so food security policies should focus on supporting their livelihoods to bring farming communities out of poverty.

A key question for scholars of food security is what role the state should play in the management and distribution of food. Jeff Neilson shows that this question is one that has a long history in Indonesia. Neilson discusses the evolution of Indonesian food security policy, revealing how contemporary policies have their roots in the early vision of Sukarno in the 1960s who framed food security as an issue that threatened the entire nation. Like McCarthy, Nielson argues that in reality food insecurity is felt by individual households and that the Indonesian government needs to develop policies that enable households to look after themselves.

One grassroots initiative that is attempting to empower households to produce their own food is the Permablitz movement. Astrid Reza, a founding member of Permablitz Jogja, believes that food security is an issue that needs to be tackled by educating communities about food production and distribution. By working communally to build gardens in Yogyakarta, Permablitz Jogja provides residents of urban neighbourhoods the skills to produce their own food. In the process, the organisation generates awareness about what it sees as the Indonesian government’s over-reliance on imported and genetically modified foods.

Rahmat Ajiguna, the head of AGRA, a farmers’ organisation, makes similar criticisms of the Indonesian government’s policies. For organisations like AGRA, Indonesia’s food security cannot be separated from the security of poor farmers and the products they sell. Food sovereignty, for Ajiguna, is the path to true food security in Indonesia. This means investing in agrarian reform, supporting local markets and using Indonesian farmers to feed the country, rather than importing products that compete with local produce.

But other analysts believe that protectionist policies like those advocated by AGRA will further exacerbate Indonesia’s food security problems. Kevin O’Rourke, a policy analyst, argues that Indonesia should be encouraging investment in its agricultural sector so that it can export agricultural products and therefore afford to import staples such as tofu and rice. His view is that the Indonesian government has been overprotective and that more market-oriented policies will make food more affordable.

Putting food policies into practice

Regardless of the government’s ideological position, it is undeniable that the process of implementing policies that will allow all Indonesians to be food secure is a challenge in such a geographically diverse and disparate country. Michael Rimmer focuses on the challenges the Indonesian government faces in safeguarding its aquaculture industry. Fish consumption in Indonesia is almost double the global average, but, as Rimmer demonstrates, the industry is under threat from over-fishing and environmental damage. Rimmer’s article highlights the difficulties the Indonesian government faces in addressing these problems and regulating an industry that stretches across the archipelago.

The final article in this edition examines the heated topic of the sale and import of beef. Risty Permani asks why the government has not been able to control beef prices in a country where consumers are demanding more. She argues that the government’s protectionist approach to beef trade is to blame, an approach guided by political interests, rather than expert knowledge. Permani suggests that in the interests of the many Indonesians who currently cannot afford to eat beef, the Indonesian government should heed the knowledge of its trade and development experts and leave political issues at the door.

This edition presents a diverse range of views about best how to achieve food security, reflecting the technically complex and politically sensitive nature of the problem. But the contributors all agree that the Indonesian government needs to develop a more effective strategy for managing and distributing food. Doing so is essential for the health, productivity and wellbeing of Indonesia’s people.

Thushara Dibley (thushdibley@gmail.com) works at the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney.

Eve Warburton (evewarburton@gmail.com) is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University. Her research is about resource nationalism in Indonesia.


Inside Indonesia 114: Oct-Dec 2013