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Foods of the future: How Indonesian women champion sustainable ag

February 20, 2024
topic:Sustainable Agriculture
by:Leo Galuh
For decades, Indonesians depended on rice as a critical food source. As climate change threatens the staple crop, local women help farmers adopt sustainable alternatives they claim can be introduced nationwide.

Maria Loretha, 45, spends hours hopping from one small island to the next in East Flores, East Nusa Tenggara province, Indonesia, meeting with local farmers. She is responsible for encouraging them to plant, grow and nurture non-rice commodities.

Sorghum, millet, barley, red rice, black rice, and corn are "exotic foods," according to Loretha.

Loretha is the pioneer and catalyst of sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) as an alternative food to rice on Flores Island, Lembata, and other remote islands in the province. She highlighted the success of other local alternative crops, attributing their growth to the province's fertile soil, abundant tropical sunshine, stable weather and the expertise of local farmers who possess indigenous knowledge. These elements, she said, are crucial for cultivating sorghum.

She noted that such alternative foods are delicious and contain good nutrition, which will helps people feel energised rather than bloated after consuming them. These crops, which have been missing from the region for 30 years, were uprooted during the former President Soeharto regime’s national rice movement, which began in the 1980s.

"Our people began eating rice in 1972," Loretha told FairPlanet. "The government then launched a massive food self-sufficiency programme in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The programme was successful, but it never predicted climate change."

Since then, Indonesians are well-known for their reliance on rice as a staple food. The country’s National Statistics Agency (BPS) showed that the total production of rice in 2021 was 31.3 million tonnes.

"Rice became a cult. It was the best main staple food at the time, and we can't blame it because the land is vast and the population is still small," Loretha added.

No hope in rice?

Although Flores Island has fertile soil, the dry makes rice cultivation in the area difficult. Farmers can only grow rice in specific conditions, Loretha noted, planting once a few weeks before the rainy season.

Furthermore, due to the impacts of climate change, such as long dry seasons or heavy rains that cause floods that could sweep away rice, farmers have been advised to diversify their staple food commodities, Loretha added.

In Indonesia, much like in other places, women appear to be among the most vulnerable to the adverse affects of climate change. Since most women in the country had few or no animals to sell, no access to credit and were unable to work in cities, they had few options when their crop was destroyed by bad weather. Their decision-making and leadership abilities in climate mitigation and adaptation efforts remain limited, according to a 2020 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report.

"We can't pin our hopes on rice," Loretha said. "However, don't worry, we have good food security because locals store their alternative foods [ Sorghum, millet, barley, red rice, black rice, and corn] in barns." 

She further emphasised that sorghum is resilient and can withstand both extended dry spells and prolonged rainy seasons. And while acknowledging that unpredictable weather can potentially damage sorghum seed, she noted its ability to quickly and successfully regenerate.

She added that from a single stalk of sorghum, farmers are able to achieve two or three harvests annually, yielding at least 900 kilogrammes to 1.2 tonnes per hectare on 80 per cent of dry land.

Moreover, according to a June 2023 report from Innovative Genomics titled "The Crop of the Future": Why Climate Scientists Are Sweet on Sorghum, climate scientists see sorghum as having significant potential for biological carbon removal. Its deep root system, along with various plant and microbial processes, enables sorghum to extract excess carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it deep in the soil.

Developing unused dry land

Loretha, who is referred to locally as "Mama Sorghum," has been an activist for Sorghum Florata since 2010. Since 2014, she has been serving as chairwoman of the Sorghum Farmers Association. She is also the programme manager of the Larantuka Socio-Economic Development Foundation, which is affiliated with the Larantuka Catholic Church.

Loretha has been interested in growing sorghum since her neighbour in Pajinian village, Adonara Island, introduced her to sorghum mixed with grated coconut in 2007.

"We are not a big NGO. But now we have managed to spread out the sorghum seeds, particularly in Flores Lembata in 22 subdistricts," Loretha said, adding that she travelled from East Flores, Manggarai, Sabu, Sumba and Timor mainland villages to look for sorghum seeds.

She explained that she only targets areas that have not been planted with any commodity, and that her movement only supports local farmers who have no other options.

"We will not come to areas that have been planted with cacao, coconuts, candlenut, cashew. We do not want to compete with rice," Loretha said. She further mentioned that she does not want to confuse local farmers who are already familiar with certain commodities, but rather wants to allow them to grow what they truly understand.

After years of tireless campaigning for sorghum, the local population's diet is finally beginning to change. Rice is gradually becoming less popular as a staple food in Flores, Loretha said.

From the coast to the villages and even the city, sorghum has become a staple food for both young and old people. Despite the fact that rice is scarce, and prices are skyrocketing, residents are unconcerned, she noted.

"Some shops do not sell wheat flour. People [even] eat cakes made from sorghum flour," Loretha said.

"We are self-sufficient"

Nissa Saodah Wargadipura, 50, of Garut regency, West Java province,  became the driving force of  a similar movement in her area. In 2018, she and her husband founded Ath-Thaariq Ecology Islamic Boarding School to teach the next generation about eco-friendly agriculture.

Children at their boarding school learn how to plant, grow, cultivate and harvest produce and animal husbandry using the Open Pollinated Organic Seed System. This management system is predicated on indigenous knowledge and ecological restoration, and views ecosystem preservation as a form of surrender to the universe, Wargadipura noted. Plant seeds, she pointed out, are pollinated by insects, birds, wind and other natural mechanisms.

She added that alternative seeds like sorghum are stable, and can be used repeatedly, meaning that if the seed bears fruit, farmers can replant it, thereby reducing their reliance on seed companies.

FairPlanet spoke with Wargadipura at her boarding school, which is surrounded by greenery, rice fields and a traditional agricultural land covering approximately 8,500 square metres.

For Wargadipura and her family, rice is not a staple food source, she noted.

"As you can see, we have lots of food diversification including sorghum, corn, cassava, sago, taro and ganyong. We are independent in terms of food," Wargadipura told FairPlanet. 

Ganyong, also known as Queensland Arrowroot (Canna edulis), is a tuber plant with a high carbohydrate content that can be used as an alternative food source.

She explained that diversifying food sources could rejuvenate the food chain cycle and restore ecological balance. This approach, she noted, would yield benefits not only for animals but also for humans.

Wargadipura suggested that farmers could cultivate arrowroot, cassava and taro as alternative sources of carbohydrates to rice. She also recommended that farmers grow traditional or non-industrialised vegetables on separate plots of agricultural land, yet still in proximity to these alternative food sources.

"There is no crop failure because biodiversity is well preserved. All the plants are protecting one another," Wargadipura explained, adding that there will be no pests when these so-called Tumpang Sari methods are employed.

FairPlanet previously reported that Tumpang Sari is a type of mixed cropping or polyculture in which two or more types of plants are grown in the same planting area at the same time. This polyculture system can reduce the population of other plant pests, according to agriculture experts.

According to Jaka Widada, Dean of Agriculture at Gadjah Mada University and an expert in agriculture and food, crop rotation enhances the polyculture system by disrupting the life cycle of pests and diseases, thereby reducing the dependence on chemical pesticides. Furthermore, he noted that intercropping with legumes, or nut crops, can significantly enhance soil fertility.

"We do not use any pesticides here or chemical soil fertiliser," said Wargadipura. She makes her own fertiliser out of leaves, soil, household waste, husk and water.

Family farming

Wargadipura, a mother of three children, invited FairPlanet to see her traditional agricultural land, which is located only a few steps from her home. 

"This is the most natural and traditional method of farming," she said. "We keep the natural ecosystem functioning very well."

She pointed out to FairPlanet that water spinach grows healthily under the sorghum trees. She then fed catfish in a pool black soldier fly larvae from a hatchery she constructed nearby.

This method can feed a single family consisting of two parents and two children, she claimed. 

"Our main foods are sorghum, cassava and taro," she told FairPlanet while showing some grains planted on her land. She and her family consume chicken and catfish grown near her home for protein.

Wargadipura is convinced that family farming can be implemented across the nation. She suggested essential steps to popularise this concept, including fostering collaboration among farmers or households, engaging communities and removing middlemen from the equation.

eco-based farming could help reduce global temperatures

Wargadipura emphasised the critical role the Indonesian government's plays in enacting regulations that could mitigate the effects of climate change. According to her, the government could put more effort into ecological restoration.

"I saw the lawmakers and government still haven't put ecological restoration as their main concern," she said, sighing.

She noted that the Indonesian government continues to prioritise monoculture agricultural practices to increase rice production. Yet, she cautioned that overlooking environmental sustainability could pose a significant threat to human well-being.

"Taro can be the supporting system. It grows easily. If the landslide ruins our rice field, we will be in troubles," Loretha warned.

She recommended that people consider cultivating a variety of vegetables, such as papaya, moringa and star gooseberry, to help preserve biodiversity.

Food diversity and diversification were neglected

Azizah Fauzi, a food security and agriculture researcher at the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies (CIPS), pointed out that Indonesia's extensive food self-sufficiency policy, introduced post-independence, has significantly contributed to the country's reliance on rice.

People tend to consume food that is widely available on the market, according to an economic law she cited. Regardless of other factors, such as preference and understanding of balanced nutrition, consumers will naturally opt for commodities that can be easily accessed, in this case - rice, Fauzi noted.

"Indonesia’s current food policy still prioritises the production and stock of certain commodities, such as rice. However, we are starting to see that there have been more massive efforts to push towards diversifying sources of carbohydrates through the National Food Agency," Fauzi told FairPlanet.

So far, she said, achieving food self-sufficiency has been a primary goal of the Indonesian agricultural sector, which it realised through efforts to satisfy demand via domestic production that prioritises specific commodities.

Fauzi further explained that agricultural extensification, which seeks to boost food supply by expanding into new farmlands -typically targeting forests, grasslands and peatlands - may fall short of addressing food security challenges. Instead, unsustainable land clearing practices have become a contributing factor to the climate crisis.

"Land clearing also jeopardises the sustainability of society's social and economic aspects, as well as biodiversity, which is essential for sustainability of human life," she said.

This is because planting area expansion without concrete efforts to ensure sustainable agriculture intensification and responsible practices has the potential to harm both nature and society, she argued.

Meanwhile, Fauzi emphasised the importance of sustainable agricultural intensification, which does not expand the area under cultivation. Instead, farmers optimise existing land through guidance, the adoption of superior seeds, enhancement of soil health and nutrition, application of suitable fertilisers and the usage of agricultural technology, she explained.

She highlighted the importance of modernising agriculture and food supply chains through innovation, technology and mechanisation.

"The government should focus on agricultural intensification policies to encourage increased production and competitiveness of agricultural products," Fauzi said.

What is the government doing? 

To bolster national food security, the Indonesian government is ramping up the production and downstream processing of sorghum, in addition to developing alternative crops to wheat. By July 2022, the total area planted with sorghum had expanded to 4,355 hectares, distributed across six provinces.

Sorghum planting areas are expected to produce 15,243 tonnes, or 3.63 tonnes per acre. The Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry will prepare these areas, according to Airlangga Hartarto, the Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs of Indonesia.

Hartarto added that for 2023, the goal is to expand the sorghum planting area to 30,000 hectares across 17 provinces, aiming for a production of 115,848 tonnes. By 2024, the target is to increase the planting area further to 40,000 hectares in the same 17 provinces, with an anticipated production of 154,464 tonnes.

This article is part of FairPlanet's Future of Food series, curated by our Asia Desk Editor, Chermaine Lee, with the backing of the Solution Journalism Network's LEDE fellowship.

Image by Sam Huijbregts.

Article written by:
Leo Galuh
Embed from Getty Images
"Our people began eating rice in 1972. The government then launched a massive food self-sufficiency programme in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The programme was successful, but it never predicted climate change."
Embed from Getty Images
Despite Flores Island's fertile soils, the dry weather makes rice cultivation difficult.
Embed from Getty Images
"The government should focus on agricultural intensification policies to encourage increased production and competitiveness of agricultural products."