Indonesia at the Crossroads: Addressing Food Security

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12 August 2013 | Opinion

Indonesia faces a silent but imminent crisis in food, energy and water supplies. There are several indicators that point to food scarcity in which the reduction in energy subsidies will not play a big role.

For example: The reduction in imports of feedstock has caused a furor in the supply of red meat for the past three years. This has been aggravated by allegations of an import mafia closely linked to funding of a political party in the lead up to the upcoming legislative and presidential elections.

The latest indicator is the skyrocketing prices of basic foods as people anticipate the festive month of Ramadhan. This, despite it occurring annually, has forced unprepared officials to issue more import licenses.

The core problems can be elaborated in five factors, namely a single staple-food policy, unmet agricultural policies, productive land conversion, poor infrastructure and pro-import, quick-fix solutions. Pointing out the biggest mistake in the agricultural sector is the single staple food policy, which has been enacted since the New Order era. For the past forty years, agriculture has simply been determined by rice production; therefore success in agriculture is measured in rice self-sufficiency. Food diversity has been neglected and slowly replaced by rice by means of education and massive propaganda. On the positive side, rice self-sufficiency was achieved in the early 1980s.

In cascading subsets of agricultural policies since the New Order era, there is little evidence of a successful farmer’s empowerment model adopted by this nation. For example, the transmigration program that moved people from the densely populated island of Java to other less populated islands could not overcome technical difficulties in farming outside Java.

On the contrary, the program caused rapid deforestation and land conflicts as some settlers frequently found a shortcut to getting rich by illegally cutting down trees and later returning to their home island after the government-stipulated initial settlement period was over.

The current agricultural policies cause scarcity in agricultural inputs like fertilizers, irrigated water and improved seeds. Inputs are heavily subsidized for small-scale farming, but not large plantations.

The dual price scenario is hard to implement. There is a moral issue in relation to stealing and selling subsidized inputs for large plantations that causes gaps between supply and demand. Irrigated water is in short supply because ducts and dams are not maintained. These result in suboptimal productivity of improved seeds that rely on high inputs. As for the improved seeds, the rate of innovation has declined sharply in current years in comparison to that of the New Order era.

Productive land conversion happens at an alarming rate. The Central Statistics Agency (BPS) reported the loss of 200,000 hectares of highly productive wetlands annually in 2008-2010 alone. The fate of about 50 percent of the total 7.8 million hectares of wetlands is in peril. Rates of new wetland development outside Java cannot meet the rate of land conversion, while the productivity of non-Java wetlands is also lower. Indonesia is dismally projected to lose its highly productive wetlands within 20 years if no significant land protection is enforced.

Since energy subsidies are expected to chew up almost 25 percent of central government expenditure in 2013, the budget allocation to develop infrastructure is less than satisfactory. The limited budget is often a scapegoat for deteriorating irrigation, very limited public transportation and road access, and underdeveloped sea infrastructure. As a result, a high-cost economy, especially in transporting inputs and goods, is unavoidable.

The government adopts an import policy as a favorite way to meet national demand for agricultural goods. For example, due to the current shortage of red meat, raw chili and onions, the central government issues import licenses in a hurry. The concern is not about the efforts to address the shortage, but the lack of action in mid- and long-term planning and execution to ensure that national supply can meet future demand. Imports should not be the most sought after quick-fix solution, but merely a band aid for some unforeseeable circumstances.

In addition to these five threatening aspects in food security, there are many more issues that could be highlighted. However, we need realignments to map the future planning in ensuring strong policies in food security. It is a credo that a strong nation is reflected by strong agricultural supplies to its people.

Solutions to the current problems can be segregated into five sectors: law on agricultural land protection, staple-food diversification, the establishment of strong supply chains in agricultural inputs, energy-subsidy reallocation to infrastructure development and a birth-control policy.

Unbridled land conversion is a major impediment to the national production of agricultural goods. This has to be stopped by signing a law for agricultural land protection. Land use is not just a matter of economic value, but also a strategic asset of Indonesia. Strong legislation to prevent land conversion is needed. If necessary, the government should allocate land-protection subsidies to cover potential economic losses as a result of land conversion to a higher land-use value.

Under President Megawati Soekarnoputri, staple-food diversification was once announced by promoting corn. This effort ceased soon after the newly elected president took office. As a single staple-food policy was enforced for a long period, the diversification effort should also be promoted over a longer time span. There is no continuation of good policies during a changeover of office, which results in the impossible achievement of long-term goals.

For the current strategy, we need a staple-food diversification policy that is immutable to a change in political leaders. This should be part of a philosophy for the greater good of the country.

There are more agricultural policies decided in offices rather than on farms. A good agricultural supply chain requires more field understanding and knowledge by government officials. Reports should not be written to satisfy leaders but to reflect real conditions on farms. Dualism in input prices should be removed and replaced by a more pro-poor policy. These will result in a more efficient agricultural supply chain.

In the short- and mid-terms, the government needs to allocate foreign direct investment in laying more rail tracks instead of toll roads to support the cheaper movement of people and goods. Rail is faster and can transport larger volumes per acreage of land therefore reducing energy and land usage. The current policy that tends to favor the automotive industry deteriorates air quality and burns too much subsidized energy.

Public transportation should focus on two aspects: mass rapid movement as well as inputs and goods. The development of better public transportation in turn will reduce subsidies in energy or at least use it more efficiently.

Birth control is an important part of the strategic measures to increase food security. If the Indonesian population growth rate is stable, the country will have 273 million people within 15 years and 358 million people in 2050, in which 70 percent will be on the dense island of Java. This number is quite daunting given the country’s capacity to provide food, energy and water supplies.

A middle way should be sought to produce effective birth control in Indonesia through continuous campaigns and education while imposing consequences, such as no subsidies or setting monetary conditions for the third and subsequent children.

Whoever wins next year’s election should not turn a blind eye to these challenges. The new government should build a strong Indonesia, which is reflected in its endeavors to achieve food security.

 

This opinion news item was originally posted on The Jakarta Post. To read the original news story, click here.