The Indonesian version of this article appeared in Kompas Daily Opinion Column on January 13, 2023, which can be read through the link:

Kompas Data Journalism Report (9/12/2022) titled “More than Half of the Population Can’t Afford Nutritious Food” emphasizes that food security is not only about agricultural production, but also about access and purchasing power. In Law No. 18/2012 on Food, the definition of food security rests on three pillars: availability, affordability (geographical and price), and utilization. Thus, talking about food security from the production side alone is, of course, lopsided.

If we compare 2021 data on agricultural production of several strategic food commodities such as rice, meat, fish and vegetables with data on food consumption per capita, we can see that food production in Indonesia far exceeds its consumption. From the comparison, Indonesia’s agricultural production reaches 1.5 to 2 times the consumption. In other words, in theory, if seen from the production side alone, Indonesia can already achieve food security.

In contrast, cases of food insecurity in several regions in Indonesia are quite alarming. Based on data from the Food Security Agency, Ministry of Agriculture in 2021, several regions in Papua and North Maluku rank the lowest in the food security index, which is caused by problems of food affordability to these locations. However, the 2021 Indonesian Nutrition Status Study (SSGI) also reported that the highest number of stunted toddlers were found in West Java, East Java, Central Java, North Sumatra and Banten — provinces that are supported by adequate infrastructure.

This phenomenon shows that food security is a complex issue, or at least not as simple to answer as simply increasing agricultural production. Massive agricultural production in a Food Estate scheme may encourage food abundance and potentially lower food prices. However, as long as logistics and supply chain are not addressed, food prices will continue to soar when they are delivered to remote areas.

In addition, even if distribution costs are reduced due to improved infrastructure, people’s declining purchasing power will still be a factor in increasing the risk of food insecurity. In fact, in metropolitan cities such as Jakarta, Surabaya and Bandung, poor households still have difficulty in accessing healthy and balanced food. The question is, if a Food Estate cannot fully address food security, then is there a more appropriate solution?

Examining various food strategies

Various studies have shown that under favorable conditions, communities have strategies to fulfill their food needs locally. In sociology, we call these foodways. In rural areas, food strategies are almost always related to access to land. In the interior of Papua or Kalimantan, for example, people regularly hunt in the forest or sea to obtain quality protein sources. In NTT, in addition to cultivating cash crops such as coffee, vanilla and cashew, people also grow rice, corn and beans to meet their subsistent needs.

From this practice, the community has access to sources of carbohydrates and vegetable protein. This is also evident in rural areas in Sumatra and Java where backyard and mixed gardens help in providing a sustainable variety of food. In times of food scarcity, such as during the Covid pandemic, we have found that communities can still fulfill their food needs independently. As long as these communities still have access to production spaces and food sources, food security can be maintained.

In urban areas, food strategies are developed in a different way. The study conducted by Poulsen et al, as also confirmed by our study results, found that land utilization for urban agriculture does not always solve the problem of providing quality food for the community.

For people in the lower-middle economic group whose husbands and wives are required to work together, time to grow food is a rare privilege. For them, a more appropriate food strategy is through informal and formal economic spaces that have been rooted in their social life, such as traditional markets, vegetable vendors and food stalls.

Traditional markets offer a wide variety of foodstuffs with a broad spectrum of quality and opportunities for people to build agreements on price and quality. Food stalls in marginal urban areas provide support for poor families to access ready-to-eat food quickly and easily, through a variety of combinations of side dishes that are adjusted to the fluctuating food prices in the market. Vegetable gardens in the backyard sometimes help, but in our observation, this food strategy is only a small part of a more diverse mechanism.

Development that reduces food space

Answering the question at the beginning of this article, it is important to critically examine how well the government is doing in achieving food security in Indonesia. We have learned from past experiences that massive land clearing for food production has the potential to deprive local communities in rural areas of access to the natural resources and land on which they depend.

Road construction, which is supposed to facilitate the distribution of food to rural areas, actually opens access for greater exploitation of natural resources out of the region, accompanied by an influx of non-nutritious packaged products that shift the dietary patterns of rural communities and become a driving factor for stunting and various food- and nutrition-related diseases.

In urban areas, development is likely to lead to what is known as a food desert, a condition in which access to places that provide nutritious food at affordable prices is limited. Our study also showed that people in poor areas surrounded by hotels, restaurants, and luxury housing, experience a food desert phenomenon because the closest stalls to their homes only sell packaged food, and the nearest traditional market must be accessed using public transportation at a higher cost. The built-up land around them does not allow for the development of urban agriculture, and all this reduces their capacity to develop appropriate food strategies.

We should recognize that each community has its own ways of building local food security, using existing resources, whether in the form of forests, land, markets or social ties. The government should encourage the creation of space for communities to develop their own food strategies. Putting the solution in mega-projects such as food estates is a simplification of the problem, because there is no silver bullet for food security in Indonesia.