This essay was written for a Webinar organised by Ganesha Magazine, PSIK and Tiang Bendera at ITB, May 22, 2020.

Introduction: Covid-19 and the fragility of the modern food system

Susan Leigh Star, an American sociologist, once wrote, “crises reveal all that is hidden”. In his study of ‘a study of boring things’ [1], Star illustrates how we, ordinary people, see things like drainage lines or electricity grids that seem to sink behind other more important things in everyday life. we. Only after an extraordinary event such as a big flood in Jakarta [2] or a blackout in Java [3] came, did we realize how chaotic the systems that support people’s lives are. Likewise, the Covid-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to the fragile things around us – the way the government is dealing with the epidemic, the paradigm that continues to drive economic growth, and, in the context of this paper, the fragile food system.

The Covid-19 pandemic broke out in Wuhan at the end of 2019, and after a series of denials, the Indonesian Government finally ‘acknowledged’ the country’s first Covid-19 case on March 12, 2020. Various policies and analyses were thrown here and there, ranging from the implementation of health protocols, social restrictions to handling the economic crisis. Before long, the media turned to news that was no less important: the food crisis. Various reports show, for example, how farmers find it difficult to sell their crops because the market is no longer absorbing as much as usual, while in urban areas food prices have soared amid Corona. Tirto reported that in the month of May, the price of chilies in the market in Jakarta reached Rp. 50,000 / kg, while at the farmer level it fell to Rp. 4-15 thousand / kg. The same incident occurred in maize, broilers and various types of vegetables [4]. Kompas daily also reported that agricultural commodities such as garlic were scarce in 31 provinces, sugar in 30 provinces, and large chilies in 23 provinces [5]. Farmers’ exchange rates fell between January and May 2020. It looks like something is wrong with our food supply chain. There are many reasons for this. For one thing, a small part of our food chain depends on the Hotel, Restaurant, Café (HoReCa) industry. The Indonesian Chili Agribist Association (AACI), for example, noted that demand for chili in Jakarta fell from 80-100 tonnes to 20-25 tonnes per day, largely due to the closure of HoReCa [6]. Export and import activities have also dropped dramatically. The price of sugar soared to Rp. 19,000, based on the explanation of the Indonesian Sugar Association, was caused by the decline in national sugar stocks approaching the main harvest of sugar cane, coupled with delays in sugar imports which could stabilize prices [7]. If these two things are not enough to destroy the food supply chain in Indonesia, limiting the time for access to traditional markets and access to and from the region (both formally and informally due to fears of spreading disease) will also contribute to the decline in market absorption.

This incident is not unique to Indonesia alone. In the United States, for example, 50% of household food consumption occurs outside the home (via the hotel, restaurant, café and fast food industry) [8]. When Covid hit and massive social restrictions occurred, everyone decided to change their habit by eating at home. Like in Indonesia, the HoReCa industry in the US collapsed. Food stock in supermarkets is running out. As it turns out, this is not because people there were stockpiling supermarket stuff. What they did was diverting their consumption from outside the house into the house. At the same time, it is difficult for farmers to sell their produce, to the point where cow’s milk is poured down gutters, vegetables are thrown away, and livestock euthanised because farmers cannot afford to feed them. Not to mention that in some areas, it is difficult for farmers to find workers due to social restrictions. Covid-19, arguably, paralyzed the global food system on both sides of the chain.

Professor Philip McMichael [9], in his short writing, said that what this pandemic did was only revealing what has actually been damaged [10]. Since its inception, the global food system has been plagued by problems like environmental degradation, exploitation of smallholder farmers, malnutrition in many parts of developing countries, and obesity, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases in developed countries. His view is shared by many other food researchers in international media such as The Economist [11] and The New York Times [12]. The just-in-time supply chain concept that emphasises efficiency is one example. In many developed countries, food and agricultural products sold in supermarkets are provided in limited quantities to ensure that these products are properly absorbed by the market. This has ramifications for excess food that must be disposed of as waste. But this efficient supply chain is not fully adaptive. When there is a surge in demand, modern supply chains are not so flexible as to be able to shift oversupply on the one hand to a deficit on the other. I remember how difficult it was to help farmer friends sell tons of vegetables that failed to send to Singapore (due to Covid-19) to be absorbed by the limited local market.

So what can we do about all of this?

Dream about food security and sovereignty

In the midst of this turmoil, the Indonesian government and people have turned to the concept of food security and sovereignty. This is clearly not a simple matter – not only because it is technically difficult to achieve these in the conditions we have today, but also because the two concepts are quite complex and require deep understanding. I try to review first about how the Indonesian government understands these two things (and one more, Food self-sufficiency). In Law Number 18 of 2012 on the Administration of Food (a legal product which can be said to be quite ambitious), food is defined as’ anything that comes from biological sources of agricultural products, plantations, forestry, fisheries, livestock, waters and water, both processed or unprocessed intended as food or drink for human consumption… ‘(Article 1 paragraph 1). Law 18/2012 then distinguishes three concepts in the delivery of food, namely:

In mass media and public discussions (or even in the following articles of Law 18/2012), these three distinctly different concepts are often used interchangeably to explain the same thing: that Indonesia must be able to meet its own food needs. In a broader discourse, however, each definition reflects a different view of how we build dreams about food.

In one of my writings on food security [13], I reviewed that in 1992 alone, around 200 different definitions of food security were documented. Initially, food security was seen as something deeper than just calorie adequacy. US President Roosevelt touched on food security when he discussed four essential freedoms: freedom to express opinion, freedom to believe, freedom from fear, and freedom from deprivation (including food shortages). Without one, the other cannot be achieved. In this case, Michael Carolan, a sociologist of agriculture and food from the US, summarises that food security needs to be seen as security through food, and not limited to security of food [14]. The definition of food security changes according to the context and paradigm in the world at that time. During the Green Revolution, food security meant the extent to which a world could produce sufficient food for the world’s growing population. With the increasingly connected world community in the era of globalisation, the dominant view is that food security can be achieved by the global food trade. This makes sense, as the global food security index shows that the country with the highest food security is Singapore, a country that has almost no agricultural land and relies on its food supply from international trade. Just look at the definition of food security: availability, access and utility (nutrition, safety, quality) of food – and you’ll see that it doesn’t matter where the food should come from, as long as it is always on our plates.

This paradigm, and the series of world meetings that accompany it in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), highlight the importance of free trade in fulfilling food security. This is clearly denied by advocates for the millions of small farmers in the world who are increasingly displaced by the liberalization, industrialization and corporatization of agriculture and food. As a form of counterhegemony, the international smallholder organization and indigenous peoples, La Via Campesina, was formed in 1993. Via Campesina provides a new framework in the discourse on food that is more assertive (and ideological) than resilience: Food Sovereignty. In the Nyeleni Declaration [15], food sovereignty is defined as:

… People’s right to food that is healthy and culturally appropriate, produced through environmentally sound and sustainable methods, and their right to self-determination of their own agricultural and food systems. [Food sovereignty] places the people who produce, distribute, and consume food at the core of food systems and policies, rather than market and corporate demand. [Food sovereignty] defends the interests and involvement of future generations, offering strategies to fight and dismantle regimes current corporate style food and commerce, and the direction of the food system, agriculture, livestock and fisheries are determined by local producers. Food sovereignty prioritises local and national economies and markets, and strengthens agriculture that is driven by smallholders and farming families, fishermen, pastoralists, and food production, distribution and consumption based on economic, social and environmental sustainability.

Via Campesina’s definition of food sovereignty looks deeper and more complex. Even so, food sovereignty has not escaped criticism, mainly because of its inoperability. Food sovereignty in this context is more accurately seen as a dialectic that is built when we juxtapose food security and the livelihoods of small-scale farmers who are squeezed by food globalization. In practical terms, there is not much that can be done within food sovereignty other than fighting and moving locally. This concept does not ‘sell’ for many who dream of a world without hunger.

What’s interesting is what we see in Indonesia. Even though the definition of food sovereignty in Law 18/2012 is inspired by food sovereignty, implementation in Indonesia is clearly different. Food sovereignty in Indonesia stems from the view to feed the ‘nation’. The writings of Jeffrey Neilson and Josephine Wright [16] explicitly review the conception of food sovereignty that emerged as a political construction of our country from the time of Sukarno to the present day, and is disconnected from the development of global discourse on the same matter. While food sovereignty outside is the “antithesis” of food security, in Indonesia food sovereignty and food security stand hand in hand. More precisely, food sovereignty is a rhetorical tool for building food security sentiment, which is then manifested through food self-sufficiency (these three combinations are clearly seen in Law 18/2012).

Actually, there is nothing wrong with this view of food nationalism. After all, the Nyeleni Declaration also emphasized the role of local and national food systems in stemming the pressure from the global food system that permeates every country. The problem is, it is not uncommon for food sovereignty to be manipulated to become an economic justification by parties with an interest in attracting the attention of the Indonesian people. The palm oil industry may be a clear example. We may remember how the sentiment of nationalism was built when Greenpeace boycotted the palm oil industry due to forest destruction practices, where DPR members responded by saying, “… it must be the order of developed countries producing vegetable oils that are unable to compete with palm oil” [17]. At this point, we forget that the Indonesian palm oil industry also helps expel indigenous peoples and smallholders from their living spaces [18].

At the end of this article, I want to talk about dreams. There is one concept of food utopia that drives various discourses on food administration [19]. The food utopia tells the story of how the way we dream / imagine about the future of food will determine how the food system will manifest itself in front of us. In the early 20th century, thinkers dreamed that food would be abundant and outstrip the world’s population growth (remember Malthus?), And this utopia came into being through the green revolution and modernisation. At the beginning of the 21st century, we also dream about agriculture that is built by technology (analog or digital). In the research we are currently conducting, we are starting to see how the digitisation of agriculture also has an impact on deeper marginalisation of smallholders and local communities. As McCarthy and Obidzinski wrote, as long as the logic of the global economy has not changed, Indonesia will always be trapped in a misappropriation of the meaning of food sovereignty and wider food impoverishment [20].

So, my question now:

What is your dream about food sovereignty?


[1] Star, S. L. (1999). The ethnography of infrastructure. American behavioral scientist43(3), 377-391.








[9] Philip McMichael is Professor of Global Development di Cornell University, AS. Along with his colleague, Hariett Friedman, they coined the idea of food regime in 1989, which became the basis for many analyses on global food system over the past 30 years.




[13] Dwiartama, A., & Piatti, C. (2016). Assembling local, assembling food security. Agriculture and human values33(1), 153-164.

[14] I won’t discuss too much about food sovereignty here, but see my other writing here:


[16] Neilson, J., & Wright, J. (2017). The state and food security discourses of Indonesia: feeding the bangsa. Geographical Research55(2), 131-143.


[18] See e.g. the article by Fat’hul Achamdi Abby on agrarian conflict between indigenous people and oil palm plantation here:

[19] Stock, P. V., Carolan, M., & Rosin, C. (Eds.). (2015). Food utopias: reimagining citizenship, ethics and community. Routledge.

[20] McCarthy, J. F., & Obidzinski, K. (2017). Framing the food poverty question: Policy choices and livelihood consequences in Indonesia. Journal of Rural Studies54, 344-354.

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