Indonesians find campaign to curb rice hard to digest
JAKARTA, June 26 — After a hard morning's toil, most Indonesians like to refuel with a lunch that includes a generous helping of rice. But if it is a Tuesday, they will be out of luck at stalls in a suburb of Jakarta after the local mayor took the novel step of declaring it a "no rice day".
The move, part of a wider push to cut consumption as a step towards self-sufficiency in rice, has not gone down well with street vendor Toni, who said his customers have little appetite for alternatives to the staple grain.
"Even in the holy Koran there is no ban on consuming rice," said Toni, as flies buzzed around diners and the empty places at his stall in the Depok area of the capital.
Indonesia, self-sufficient in rice in the 1980s before farmland was used to build housing for a booming population, will in coming weeks decide on the volume of rice imports needed to ensure supplies in 2012.
The world's fourth most populous nation is looking to avoid the kind of rising prices seen early last year, when food security shot to the top of the priority list for global policymakers.
Despite a push to expand paddy fields as well as curb consumption, the government has forecast that it may be forced to import up to two million tonnes, as it did last year, from Southeast Asian exporters Thailand and Vietnam.
"Indonesia will not become another North Korea and starve its own people," said Andy Aaronson, a rice specialist for the U.S. government. "However, their deficit is projected to widen over time."
But diluting the population's dependence on the grain is likely to be a stiff challenge. The government has promoting eating other home-grown staples such as cassava, through street posters, news conferences and television adverts at dinner time.
Former strongman President Suharto measured the success of provincial officials in rice output, and his distribution of it among the poor was hugely popular. Officials have not forgotten that food inflation contributed to his downfall in 1998.
Indonesia's rice consumption is still rising, and at more than 139 kilograms per capita per year is among the highest in the world, the International Rice Research Institute says.
It estimates Indonesia will need 40 percent more rice in the next 25 years. That would mean pushing production yields across the country's lush green paddies to an unfeasibly high 6 tonnes per hectare, versus a world average of about 4.3 tonnes.
"In the past, our rice production increased by up 3 percent a year and it was not enough - if consumption cannot be lowered it is still a problem for us," said Rusman Heriawan, the deputy agriculture minister.
The country's trade minister, Gita Wirjawan, is attempting to blaze a trail by cutting rice from his evening meals - something he says has had the added benefit of trimming his waistline.
"It could make us healthier," agreed Budiarto, a diner at Toni's stall, finishing a rice-free plate of fish with potato fries, as cats scavenged for scraps. "Most people are out of control (when it comes to) consuming food."
While rice remains the most sensitive aspect of food security, given its consumption among the poor, the government may also face future discontent over corn and wheat prices as an emerging middle class gets a taste for burgers and doughnuts.
"A public campaign to reduce consumption is going to be difficult, if not ineffective. If anything, policies to reduce rice consumption will see Indonesian consumers substitute for other grains ... so this does little to improve food security," said Michael Creed, an economist at National Australia Bank. — Reuters