3 Strategies to Revive Local Foods and Achieve a More Sustainable Food System in Indonesia.

Most Indonesians tend to consume and rely on homogenous foods, or on a single staple food. This tendency has had implications on the government’s food policy decisions. For example, the national government imported 41,000 tons of rice in July 2021. Last year, the Jakarta government had to import 130,000 tons of sugar. In Papua, it was typical for the local government to worry over the insufficiency of local rice production as less than 20% of Papuans consumed sago and tubers; which are traditionally the local source of carbohydrates in the region. 

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed a spotlight on the fragility of Indonesia’s food and land use systems. While the Government of Indonesia has implemented different policies over time in different areas, from central to provincial level, with emergency public activity restrictions, the widely disrupted supply chains had deleterious impacts on food supply, market and livelihoods. Worldwide, 2020 data from UNDP projected that 780 million people would suffer from hunger in the next one year, a marked increase from the current 690 million. The pandemic is also expected to have a negative impact on the number of children with stunting and wasting in the millions in the next two years, effectively wiping out the previous 10 years of global progress in reducing malnutrition.

a lady arranging food in open air stalls in Indonesia

Indonesia has demonstrated a strong commitment to shifting to a more diverse and sustainable, healthier diet. © Anggit Rizkianto/Unsplash.

The economic ramification of the pandemic is felt across Indonesia in form of loss of income. As a result, a 2020 online survey done by J-PAL and partners found that more than a third of the households surveyed have reduced their food intake due to financial constraints, putting families in danger of malnutrition. In light of these projections, it is prudent to ask oneself if the impact of the pandemic could have been less severe, if people consumed more local foods. 

Indonesia has demonstrated a strong commitment to shifting to a more diverse and sustainable, healthier diet. This is mandated in the Law no. 18 of 2012 on Food and the country’s effort to realize the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly Goal 2 on ending hunger, achieving food security, improving nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture. Another commitment to strengthen the implementation of the Food Law has been included in the 2020- 2024 National Medium-Term Development Plan (RPJMN), which outlined the strategies for achieving an ideal and balance dietary pattern, especially to increase the consumption of more nutritious and championing local foods.  

As an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, Indonesia is blessed with fertile soil and rich mega-biodiversity; two aspects which support robust production of local foods and in turn contribute to food security. Indonesia has 77 types of carbohydrate-resource food plants, 389 types of fruits, 77 types of protein-resource, and 228 types of vegetables. Instead, Indonesia relies only on rice and corn as sources of carbohydrates. This is one of the factors that has led our food system to transition away from local food and towards national dietary convergence, a concept where people tend to consume homogenous foods, despite the availability of other local foods. Consequently, research shows that lack of dietary diversity influences national food security.

Improving the production and consumption of local food will support the Government of Indonesia’s plan for transforming its food system to a more sustainable one. From an environmental perspective, a diet based on local foods has a high potential to lower Green House Gas emissions, reduce food losses during transport, and utilize less packaging during retail due to close proximity to food sources, all these shortening the food supply chain. From a socio-economic sustainability standpoint, it allows a sense of ownership for local heritage and local identity, which may bring communities together. Establishment of local markets brings producers and consumers closer and provides more employment opportunities in rural areas. From a health perspective, a shorter supply chain reduces incidence of food spoilage and increases rural access to healthy, diverse diets. 

Therefore, more effort should be made to revive Indonesia’s local food to help realise a sustainable food system for the nation. The government should focus on the following three strategies: improving supply chain, productivity as well as data and technology.

First, shortening the food supply chain between farmers and consumers by integrating online digital platforms. This need was most visible during the pandemic, as the country’s food supply chain grapples with restricted movement of goods compounded with poor logistics. The e-commerce sector could play a key role in ensuring both smooth distribution of food between farmers and consumers, lowering food prices, while improving food quality for both parties in the process. 

Several agri-technology e-commerce platforms in Indonesia such as Tanihub, SayurBox, Aruna and Jala have encouraged farmers to expand their business activities online. OkeJeck, a local initiative in Papua, is a good example where an online platform helps the marketing of local foods in forested areas. On top of increasing local producers’ access to the market, this also allows wider distribution of surplus food from the neighboring markets, thereby reducing food waste.  

Second, boosting yield productivity through regenerative agriculture. To achieve more sustainable agricultural practices, Indonesia needs to implement regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is one of the tipping points to support more sustainable agriculture systems through the use of organic fertilizer, soil and livestock management that gradually increase the nutrient of food products and decrease GHG emissions. It should substitute the current agriculture production which relies on traditional practices such as the use of chemical fertilizer, abundant water and hybrid seeds.

A study by the Food and Land Use (FOLU) Coalition in 2021 observes its five main potential benefits of implementing regenerative agriculture: (1) for the environment, by rebuilding soil health and carbon content, for the health by improving air quality, (2) for the inclusion, by developing more diversified and profitable agricultural products, (3) for the food security, by boosting productivity, and (5) for the economy, by gaining more profits. In Indonesia, implementing regenerative agriculture should start from the education and capacity building from the government, particularly the Ministry of Agriculture, to local farmers then combining with agricultural participatory extension.

Third, utilizing technology and data. A sustainable local food-based diet requires a local food system that is tailored to Indonesia’s varied geographic, demographic and cultural characteristics. A district-based Food Systems Dashboard could provide local policymakers not only with reliable data, but also a high-level overview of their food system (and their neighboring districts) wherein potential issues and synergies could be identified. On a broader level, the dashboard provides a complete overview of a country’s food system and has aided policymakers in setting out priorities to improve their nutrition and health outcomes. Under proper development, a subnational model of the platform will be a powerful tool in assisting Indonesia’s transformation into a sustainable, resilient food system.