Indonesia: New staple food needed for food security goals
A firmly established culture of rice consumption in Indonesia may put food security at stake, potentially hampering the country's efforts to achieve its rice self-sufficiency target by 2014, scientists say.
Office of the State Minister for Research and Technology deputy minister Benyamin Lakitan said Tuesday that diversification into other staple foods, such as corn, cassava and sorghum, remained stagnant even though rice fields were deteriorating because of indiscriminate land conversion and changing weather.
"The problem is rice is considered a staple," Benyamin said at a seminar on food commodity research held by the State Minister for Research and Technology Office.
In eastern Indonesia, people have traditionally consumed corn, cassava or sago as their daily staple food. Papuans, for example, used to eat primarily sago, as well as sweet potatoes and cassava. However, they have become accustomed to eating rice in the last few decades.
"We should encourage these people to go back to their traditional staple foods," he said.
He said it would not be easy to encourage people to reduce their rice consumption and return to other traditional staples.
"Switching from rice to another staple will be difficult for some people. They don't want to be seen as economically vulnerable just because they don't eat rice," he said.
A failure to diversify food consumption will further hamper the government's efforts to meet its rice self-sufficiency target by 2014, which has been severely impacted by ongoing land conversion.
"Land conversion for non-agricultural purposes has continued despite the government's anti-land conversion efforts," said a research and development scientist at the Agriculture Ministry, Suwarno.
Suwarno said rice demand in Indonesia had increased sharply due to population increases.
According to the Agriculture Ministry, 121,000 hectares out of the 21 million hectares of agricultural land in Indonesia had been converted into non-agricultural land between 2003 and 2008.
About 86,000 hectares of the 121,000 hectares were in Java, even though most of the land in Java is fertile. Between 2008 and 2009, 27,000 hectares of agricultural land had been converted into non-agricultural land, seriously threatening farmers.
Agricultural land ownership in Java is now only 0.2 to 0.3 hectares per farmer, and one to 1.2 hectares per farmer outside of Java.
Land conversion is likely to continue because the proposed regional regulation on land submitted by several local administrations will seize about 3.1 million hectares of agricultural land, 1.7 million hectares in Java and 2 million hectares outside of Java.
The government has responded to the decline with laissez-faire policies on rice stocks. While launching a nationwide campaign for citizens to reduce rice consumption, it has continued to abolish import taxes on rice, which lowers prices and endangers the livelihood of remaining rice farmers.
Apart from land conversion, Suwarno said bad weather would also impede Indonesia's efforts to meet its rice self-sufficiency target.
"We will see more intense flooding and a longer dry season, as well as vast increases in plant diseases caused by global warming and climate change," he said.
As a result, plant breeding should continue in order to develop an improved rice variety that can better adapt in a wide range of environmental conditions.
"We should make more of an effort to meet our rice self-sufficiency target. Research and technology will play an important role in increasing rice production nationally," he said.
Tough challenges, from massive land conversion to bad weather, have brought economic difficulties to millions of rice farmers, forcing the introduction of drought tolerant staple crops, including sorghum.
"Sorghum is the most suitable alternative staple food," said Soeranto Hoeman, a radiation and isotope technology scientist at the National Nuclear Energy Agency (BATAN).
Sorghum is not only more drought and heat resistant, but it also has more resistance to high salinity land.
"Such drought tolerant staple crops are needed by farmers facing difficulties caused by an unpredictable climate," Soeranto said, while lamenting that sorghum was less popular in Indonesia than other countries like India, Japan and China.
Sorghum, a kind of grain, is a multifunction crop widely used not only as a staple food, but also as food for cattle and as a biofuel.
Sorghum is number five in the ranking of most important cereal foods, after wheat, rice, corn and barley. It also contains more nutrition than other staples, with high anti-cholesterol and anti-diabetic elements as well.
Soeranto said diversification to more drought resistant staple crops was one of the best ways to adapt to the increasingly unpredictable climate.
"Further research using both conventional and biotechnology breeding is needed to develop improved sorghum varieties, since it is still not an attractive alternative staple crop for our farmers," he said. (ebf)