Indonesians need better nutrition - farmers can help

By Kundhavi Kadiresan 

Indonesians consume fewer fruits and vegetables than any other country in ASEAN save Cambodia. And for the bottom 70 percent of the population it is even worse – they spend only half as much on fruits and vegetables, and just one-third as much on meat, fish and dairy, when compared to the top 30 percent.

These micronutrient-rich foods are essential for physical and cognitive development – people should not live on rice alone. The low consumption of fruits and vegetables by so many Indonesians is one major reason for the high prevalence of stunting among children below the age of five (in both urban and rural areas). In fact, Indonesia has the second highest stunting rate in ASEAN (Lao PDR has the highest). The bottom line is that adults who were stunted as children earn 20% less than adults who were not, putting a brake on economic growth and preventing the country from reaching its full potential. All told, malnutrition costs Indonesia more than US$ 5 billion annually due to lost productivity.

In order to solve this problem and meet the SDG targets on poverty and hunger eradication, Indonesia needs to build a competitive and diversified agricultural sector that promotes farmer livelihood and improved nutrition for all Indonesians. For example, Indonesians should be eating more fruits and vegetables, but the country does not want to become too reliant on imports. At the same time, these foods must be affordable, so it will be essential to improve productivity and probably also expand the area devoted to these crops (which has not increased for the past few years). One option might be to encourage more cultivation during the dry season on Java, where soils are fertile, climate is favorable and population density is high, by providing better seeds and using information and communication technologies to disseminate knowledge to farmers. Because fruits and vegetables are high value crops, they provide more income earning opportunities for farmers. And because they are often labor-intensive, they are also good for farm laborers who do not have much land and need jobs. And because these crops are nutritious, they can also help to reduce malnutrition – thus, a triple win. Aquaculture is another promising activity, as fish is the leading source of animal-protein for Indonesians. It has been expanding rapidly, with growth in excess of 10% per year.

In other areas, fruits, vegetables and fish are not a viable solution. For example, in eastern Indonesia where soils are poor and rainfall is unpredictable, the Ministry of Agriculture has been working with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to demonstrate and scale up Conservation Agriculture (CA) techniques – particularly in relation to corn, a main staple in Indonesia’s eastern provinces, where rural poverty rates are among the highest. The main principles that underpin Conservation Agriculture are minimum soil disturbance, keeping crop residues on the soil (rather than burning them) to conserve soil moisture, and planting cover crops (legumes) that protect the soil, while also fixing nitrogen.

These techniques are beneficial to small holder farmers, who gain by lowering their input costs and increasing their productivity and incomes. Without the use of expensive fertilizers and pesticides, it also gives the environment a breather. Furthermore, CA significantly reduces the risk of drought-induced crop failures by protecting the soil and preserving moisture, making the system more resilient to climate change – another triple win. And more productive corn farms can lower input costs for Indonesia’s growing poultry industry, contributing to more diverse sources of protein.

Close to 13,000 small holder farming families are applying CA practices in the provinces of East Nusa Tenggara and West Nusa Tenggara, with technical support from FAO and funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The result has been an increased maize yield of more than 60 percent, as well as farmers being able to plant two maize crops per year. This has not only generated extra income for these families, but has also improved their food security and nutrition.

So, while there is a moral imperative to eradicate poverty and hunger in Indonesia (and worldwide) by the promised year of 2030 under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is also a good business case to be made to upscale Conservation Agriculture approaches in parts of Indonesia with similar agro-ecological conditions to those found in NTT and NTB.

Creating a diversified and competitive agricultural sector will be challenging, but with the use of innovative food and agricultural production techniques, it is within reach. Indeed, it will be essential to building a nation of well-nourished and healthy people. FAO is ready to help in this task.


Kundhavi Kadiresan is the Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

This opinion piece was originally published in The Jakarta Post, 14 March 2017 


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