Indonesia Expat
Featured Observations

Food for Thought

Food for Thought

Kenneth Yeung masticates a moody forkful of rotten food.

Strolling around West Jakarta last week¸ I encountered an obese woman begging for money, purportedly for food, while her scrawny infant girl suckled sweetened condensed milk from a plastic tube, which was then thrown to the ground, while a nearby cat dined on a discarded meal of chicken and rice. All the while, there was a tremendous stench of rotten food from an adjacent fruit and vegetable market.

Welcome to Indonesia, one of the world’s biggest food wasters, despite suffering a declining number of farmers and low investment in horticulture. The country also has the twin problems of obesity and stunting (infants suffering impaired growth and development due to poor nutrition and a lack of clean water, hygiene and sanitation).

Local health officials claim that progress is being made to combat malnutrition and stunting. But coronavirus and climate change are now pushing 270 million people worldwide to the brink of famine. That’s according to the United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP), which will need more than this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to help tackle rising food insecurity.

So how bad is the outlook in Indonesia? In terms of food waste, malnutrition, stunting, obesity and smallholder agriculture, the situation is terrible. But in terms of people being on the brink of starvation, Indonesia doesn’t rank among the world’s 50 hungriest countries (although neighbouring Timor Leste is near the top of the list).

Waste Not

Indonesia is the world’s second-largest food waster, throwing away about 300 kilograms of food per person per year, according to some oft-regurgitated data from the Economist Intelligence Unit. (Topping the list of food wasters is Saudi Arabia.) Indonesia is throwing away about 13 million tons of food a year – enough to feed 28 million people.

Up to about a third of the food produced in Indonesia is wasted – despite some big-name supermarkets thoughtfully keeping plastic-wrapped fruit and vegetables on the shelves, even when the rot and mould become impossible to ignore.

Why does so much food get wasted? The official reasons are twofold: first, logistical problems in supply chains (getting food from producing areas to urban centres); and second, inadequate cold storage capacity (well below the required capacity of about 2 million tons).

Another reason is that some middle and higher-income people buy or cook more food than can be eaten by their household before it spoils. Many Indonesians think nothing of throwing large amounts of unfinished food into the trash, where it will be appreciated by marauding cats and/or rats, before contributing to the fetid stench emanating from waterways and rubbish dumps.

The solutions should be simple: invest much more in cold storage facilities (especially at traditional markets), eliminate bureaucratic bottlenecks in food transport networks, campaign against flagrant food waste, and start using organic kitchen scraps as compost and animal feed.

Aging Farmers

Indonesia faces the challenge of feeding 3.5 percent of the world’s population with only 1.28 percent of the global arable land. Compare that to Australia, which has only 0.33 percent of the world’s people but 3 percent of its arable land.

Fortunately, Indonesia is blessed by some of the most fertile soil on the planet, high annual rainfall and abundant fisheries resources. Indonesia is ranked fourth in the world in terms of agricultural production value – but that’s including palm oil, forestry, and fisheries.

The country faces tough challenges in achieving self-sufficiency in basic foods. About 32 percent of Indonesian land is used for agriculture, but farms are gradually disappearing, being replaced by commercial plantations (our great friend, palm oil, accounting for much of this) and industrial, urban and tourism (hello Bali, Lombok and Labuan Bajo) development.

Some 29 percent of the Indonesian labour force is involved in agriculture, but the number of farmers is declining because their incomes are so low. Some smallholder farmers are lucky to make Rp30,000 a day, so they have to take side-jobs as scavengers or construction workers. Only the owners of vast commercial estates tend to make good profits, whereas the average smallholder farm size is just 0.6 hectares – hardly enough to keep a farmer above the poverty line.

More than 60 percent of Indonesia’s farmers are aged 45 or above, as young rural people opt for more lucrative career options. Farmers and fishermen (or ‘fisher-folk’, if you prefer a gender-neutral pronoun) tend to be looked down on or even infantilised for being poor, poorly educated, and worst of all: having sunburned skin. Farmers and fishermen should be championed as heroes for producing the nation’s food. And skin-whitening products, laden with our cherished friend palm oil, should be banned for perpetuating the racist notion that light skin is better than dark skin.

Sadly, when you enter a Jakarta minimart, it’s usually easier to buy a skin-whitening product or a ready-to-eat, plastic-wrapped ‘sausage’, rather than a piece of fresh fruit. Many people, when sating their hunger, will choose processed snack-foods composed of sugar, flavour enhancers, palm oil and artificial ingredients. It’s usually cheaper and more convenient to purchase this addictive, processed muck or deep-fried gunk, rather than some healthy fruit or vegetables.

Indonesia could achieve self-sufficiency in rice and various fruit and vegetables through better agriculture policies. The government is presently developing a 164,000-hectare food estate in Central Kalimantan, primarily to grow more rice, amid fears that coronavirus will cause food shortages. Environmentalists have questioned the wisdom of trying to develop rice paddies in acidic peat swamps. There have also been calls to reduce the nation’s dependence on daily servings of rice by diversifying the national diet.

Obesity, Stunting & Smoking

More than 20 percent of Indonesians are obese because they are not eating properly and not exercising sufficiently. This is all the worse when we consider that nearly one in three Indonesian children suffer from stunting, which can cause neurological problems, leading to learning disorders, creating a vicious circle in which lowest-income people remain trapped in poverty.

The government needs to intervene by improving access to clean water, promoting hygiene and nutrition. Pregnant women should consume iron-rich foods and mothers should breastfeed their babies for at least six months, rather than believing that switching to processed milk formula products will make infants grow smarter and taller.

Worst of all is when households squander income on cigarettes, rather than buying nutritious food. The government must do more to stop people from smoking. It should cease swallowing the tobacco lobby’s mantra that reducing smoking will cause millions of job losses. No. If the tobacco companies really cared, they would shut down their factories, and use their vast profits to retrain their workers to produce something more useful than addictive drugs.

Rather than obese women begging amid rotting food because their husbands waste money on cigarettes, Indonesia would be better off improving sanitation and infrastructure and raising the respectability of farming as an occupation.

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