Malnutrition caused by fundamental failure in Food Security Policy

The child malnutrition outbreak has now spread from West Nusa Tenggara, to West Sumatra, Lampung and now South East Sulawesi Provinces. It is ironic, as these provinces have long been known as rice self-sufficient areas. How is it possible that malnutrition can occur in a place like Indonesia where, as an agricultural country, vast fertile land is available for producing a diverse range of foodstuffs.

There must be a fundamental failure in food system policy as most malnutrition cases have occurred among farmer families; those who produce food. Yet more absurd is that the dry season has not even come yet, meaning that rice fields and farmlands still have enough water.

In the words of an Indonesian proverb, this phenomenon is referred to as “the chicken dying of starvation inside a rice barn”.

The only policy effective in addressing this malnutrition is food security.

There are various ways of defining the term food security. The FAO committee on World Food Security defines it as meaning that “all people at all times have both physical and economic access to the basic food they need”. While the World Bank defines it as, “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life”. Such definitions never address where the food comes from and where it is produced.

West Nusa Tenggara, for instance, where 21 children have died of chronic hunger, has actually been quite successful in implementing ”green revolution” programs. Last year the province was awarded for being a rice self-sufficient province, and in fact the province exported rice to other regions. But the green revolution has only benefited farmers who have enough land. Agricultural workers who are landless do not have rice even during harvest seasons. They have to work hard every day to increase the productivity of rice fields, but their own income decreases even along with this increase in production.

Modernization of farming under the green revolution changed the way farmers grow food, which now depends on inputs from the big agribusiness and trans-national companies. Farmers have to spend more money to buy chemical pesticides and petrochemical fertilizers. Even in West Nusa Tenggara, farmers have to buy hybrid varieties from seed companies such as Monsanto as the biggest seed producers, even though the province has an abundance of diverse local varieties.
Because farmers have to pay more for inputs even while prices for their produce remains fixed, they lose money, making them poorer.

West Sumatra with 54,000 children suffering from malnutrition, seems to be an even more insane case. Padang people are famous not only in Indonesia but also worldwide for their cuisine stalls and restaurants. Their delicious dishes reflect their high culture and high skill in agriculture and food matters.
But because food security does not define where food comes from, and the agribusiness approach delivered by the government forcing farmers to be more market oriented, farmers produce rice more for export orientation rather than to fulfill local needs. Now, people of the city Medan, Batam and also Malaysia eat the flavorsome Solok and Nundam rice, but people in West Sumatra eat low-quality broken rice imported from Vietnam. And now in the regency of Solok, Pesisir Selatan and Pasaman, children are suffering from malnutrition.

Market orientation has also encouraged farmers in Tanggamus in Lampung province to grow cash crops, namely coffee, instead of food plants. The local government encourages farmers to grow cash crops because it provides a high income for the province. Moreover, they invite foreign investors to open export businesses and plantations in order to boost economic growth and provide employment.

The cash crops and export orientation of commodities are very depending on market prices, which are very difficult to control because of competition of a few big business that determine the price. But good prices at the international level never benefits small producers. The price of coffee beans is very low, around three to four thousand Rupiah at the farm gate, while the middle men get Rp 9,800 and the exporters sell for Rp 10,000.

Children of coffee workers in Tanggamus now suffer from malnutrition because the price of coffee has collapsed and they cannot afford to buy rice, and of course they cannot eat their stockpiles of coffee beans as a substitute for rice or maize.

Many of the decision makers in the central government at the local level are still market and export orientated. In many seminars and discussions they refer to Thailand as the model for developing agriculture and agro industries. They do not know that the profits taken from exporting agricultural commodities only benefits big agribusiness companies, such as Charoen Pokphand Co., and not the farmers. The peasant and small farmers in Thailand are now in debt and cannot repay the loans given to them by big agribusiness companies.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono promised to revitalize agriculture, fisheries and the forestry sector last Saturday (11/6), using a ”triple track” strategy and thereby decreasing the percentage of people in poverty to 8.2 percent.

The government should listen to the voices of peasants and farmers and change their food policies. A concept of food sovereignty has been formulated by La Via Campesina, the international movement of peasants formed during the World Food Summit in Rome in 1996.

This concept is an alternative in solving the food problem that the food security concept has failed to do so. The fundamental change through application of the food sovereignty concept is that communities have the right to define their own agricultural and food policies, to protect and to regulate their national agricultural and livestock production, and to shield their domestic market from dumping of agricultural surpluses and low priced imports from other countries.
Food sovereignty demands prioritizing local agricultural production in order to feed the people, as well as access for peasants and landless people to land, water, seeds, and credit. It also demands land reform.

Written by Tejo Pramono
Via campesina