New normal, New poverty, New challenge: Providing food security in an age of the pandemic

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Illustration: Agung Wahyudi/IO

IO – With only five months into the pandemic, COVID-19 has already inflicted drastic changes in the structure of low-income societies. Before the pandemic, the number of poor people accounted for in Indonesia was around 24 million; now five months on, it is feared there could be 67 million more new poor people. Previously grouped into the near poor and/or vulnerable group, with income ranging between IDR440,358 – IDR704,861 per month. 

This increase in the number of poor people is inevitable, mainly due to the decline in income, particularly of those working in the informal sector. Indeed, these groups are among some of the worst-affected by the pandemic-induced economic downturn. No fewer than 15 million people were laid off, while around 2.5 million MSMEs were forced to shut their businesses. Significant decreases in income were also reported by informal workers in the sector of transportation, services, food and gig economy. Immediately after losing their jobs, their status changed from vulnerable to poor. 

This situation, of course, presents extraordinary challenges. Not just economy-wise: the impact is also multi-dimensional – social, political, and security. The security dimension should be our common concern. Just imagine: there are 67 million new poor people whose expectations must be addressed to. Over the last five months, maybe they still were able to survive the hardships. But as the pandemic continues with no end in sight and positive cases continue to increase, we must brace ourselves for worst conditions yet. This includes social unrest arising in areas with a high proportion of poor people with corresponding high rates of COVID-19 infections. 

Then how will the emergence of this group of new poor people affect the government’s strategy in bolstering food security during the pandemic? 

Pandemic, Food and Security 

From a security aspect, the dramatic increase in the number of poor people caused by the pandemic must be seriously taken into account. Low-income groups tend to be critical and sensitive to the difficulties associated with their basic needs. For example, if there is an increase in the prices of basic food items, fuel, electricity and other household expenses, the government must do everything in its power to fulfill these basic needs. 

Among the basic needs component for the poor, it can be said that food is the most critical. Data from Statistics Indonesia (BPS) shows a 51% increase in household spending on food during the four months of the pandemic. Not surprisingly, the first thing the government did was send packages of social aid to millions of people whose income had diminished due to the pandemic. So far, the strategy is still quite effective in helping low-income people meet their basic food needs. But in the long run, problems will begin to emerge. For example, the scarcity of commodities needed for government social aid packages, such as sardines and sugar. To restock sardines, for example, suppliers must place advanced order with producers. The price of other commodities such as rice have also begun to increase due to reduced supply. In the future, these challenges will be even greater, as national food production output decreases and imports fall due to the policies of food exporters. 

The availability of food at affordable prices during the pandemic is key to maintaining security and stability. The government is very well aware of this, especially as Indonesia experiences a sizeable trade deficit for several major food commodities. Our country still has to import strategic commodities in large quantities including rice, soybeans, sugar and flour. These commodities form part of the people’s staple diet, especially the low-income group. If producer countries reduce their supply or increase prices due to COVID-19, the impact on national food security will be very significant. 

 On the matter of domestic security and stability, food security is absolutely critical for Indonesia. In a situation where food supply is decreasing throughout the world, there is a great opportunity to use food as a tool for diplomacy, including to pressure other countries. 

The question now, is Indonesia ready to deal with this new geopolitical reality? 

Food security and sovereignty 

Twice have we seen evidence in the past that food scarcity caused a multidimensional crisis that destroyed the social fabric of this nation. The years 1965 and 1998 gave us a valuable lesson about the importance of not being overly-dependent on other countries for our food supply. When our food trade deficit continues to grow, it can be said that our food security and sovereignty will weaken over time. 

The silver lining is that this pandemic will soon awaken all of us to future threats. Food scarcities and rising prices can lead to social unrest, especially in an unprecedented pandemic situation like what we are experiencing at this moment. Just imagine, in the last century we have never faced a global pandemic and a fast-spreading virus with no effective cure or vaccine available. None of us has ever experienced an unprecedented event like this, so it is just natural that the risk of instability also increases due to the collateral impact of the pandemic. 

One of the impacts that we have begun to experience is the decline in agricultural output, as noted by BPS. The cash crop sub-sector fell by 0.54% and the smallholder estate crop sub-sector by 2.30% during the four months of the pandemic. Other than the production side, the pandemic has also disrupted the transportation and distribution of agricultural produce, in particular starting with the implementation of Large-Scale Social Restrictions (PSBB). 

The government’s efforts are thus far still not integrated, as each sector moves individually without strong central coordination. Since food is one of the basic needs, the government must be more strategic in carrying out the program. Do not let the failures of previous food security programs be repeated this time around, as there is no room for mistakes. 

It is thus not surprising that the Ministry of Defense, under Prabowo Subianto’s leadership, was appointed to take charge of the food security and sovereignty program during the COVID-19 emergency period. This program will indeed require strong leadership. Not only that, all the resources possessed by the Ministry of Defense also needs to be mobilized immediately in order to achieve the speed and scale of the targeted program. 

Then what kind of strategies will Prabowo conceive? 

Under the command of the Ministry of Defense 

When the state is unable to provide basic food in an emergency situation, there are only two choices – import food or seek help from other countries. Both of these are risky during a pandemic, because almost all countries will think of themselves first. Add to this the potential of vulnerability if other countries use “food politics” to put pressure on Indonesia and force its agenda on us. 

This is where the role of the Ministry of Defense comes into play. Defense is not only military, but also non-military in nature, including in matters such as ensuring food and energy security, as well as biodefense. Prabowo’s command is urgently needed so that all relevant stakeholders can work together more effectively to achieve a common goals. 

From the presentations delivered by the Minister of Defense and Deputy Minister of Defense on various occasions, we can learn several strategic steps that the Ministry is taking, namely: 

First, the Ministry of Defense wants to ensure the country’s ability to produce its own strategic food commodities. In an emergency situation, the state can no longer rely solely on the ability of farmers and the private sector to carry out food production. In the context of COVID-19 pandemic, there are many obstacles farmers and the private sector face in production, harvesting, and distribution of agricultural produce. If these aren’t addressed, it will be difficult for Indonesia to meet the required food reserve target. 

Second, the Ministry of Defense wants to ensure that the country is able to produce food for import substitution. This is because many imported commodities require the scale and high technology to be cultivated in Indonesia. This makes the commodity not commercially attractive to farmers and the private sector. If the state can pave the way by investing in these commodities, farmers and the private sector will be able to follow suit after finding the right timing to reach a commercial scale. They will definitely produce if they have economic incentives for the food commodities they grow. 

Third, the Ministry of Defense encourages industrial integration from upstream to downstream, to provide added value to the commodities produced. One of the weaknesses of the previous food security program is the lack of integration at the industry levels from upstream to downstream. In seeking to partner with various strategic industrial partners from within and outside the country, the Ministry of Defense intention is to link up the economic ecosystems involved in the food security program. 

Fourth, the Ministry of Defense wants to ensure that the Public Private People Partnership (PPPP) concept can work in the implementation of the program. All elements work together to contribute their respective strengths and advantages. The government provides land, budget and legal umbrella for the implementation of the program; the private sector and academics supply the expertise, technology, investment and financial support; while the farmers provide local wisdom, work ethics and intimate knowledge of the local area. All three components form pillars that support each other. 

This is the differentiating factor that will distinguish this food security program from the previous one. In addition, there are still several other concepts the Minister of Defense and Deputy Minister of Defense seek to implement to realize Indonesia’s competitive advantage in food production over other countries, especially during the current pandemic. 

So what are the advantages that can be harnessed? 

Bolstering Indonesia’s competitive edge amid pandemic 

Many countries have started reporting a decline in agricultural productivity, because their food estates are being affected by the pandemic. Sooner or later this could befall Indonesia. If we look at the statistics from the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB), there has been a significant increase of COVID-19 cases in areas that are designated national food buffer, such as the farm belt in West Java, Central Java, East Java and Bali. Similarly, South Sulawesi, Lampung and North Sumatra are also affected. If this isn’t handled properly, the numbers could continue to increase exponentially, further exacerbated by relatively inadequate healthcare facilities and infrastructure in those regions. 

This condition has the potential to reduce the productivity of farmers on a scale that will grow in severity over time, especially when downward trend of COVID-19 cases is yet to be seen. This can spook the farmers and depress them psychologically which eventually may lead to lower productivity as they work less in cultivating the fields. 

This is where the strategic value of state-sponsored food production lies. The state must have the ability to immediately replace the supply vacuum that is lost due to the decrease in farmer productivity. The state in this case owns and cultivates agricultural lands and a fishing fleet that can keep producing using the latest technology so as to yield high quality harvest in high quantity, so that on average production costs can be brought down compared to when conducted by the farmers and private sector. 

The country’s food production initiative to establish strategic food reserves was first proposed by DoM Prabowo Subianto. This initiative immediately gained support from the government and also the House of Representatives because it was a very logical thing to do, especially in a state of emergency like the current pandemic. The Ministry of Defense is considered the natural choice to plan and execute this program. The Ministry of Defense has adequate financial and non-financial resources to carry out this program, including superior technical capabilities and a fresh perspective in relation to food production strategies. In addition, the Ministry of Defense is likely to merge this program with a reserve component program that can supply educated, professional and militant young farmers. 

Tasked with finding a competitive advantage in the food sector, the Minister of Defense, along with the Deputy Minister of Defense have proposed several strategic steps. In the planning stage, the Ministry of Defense, together with other technical ministries, such as the Ministry for National Development Planning (Bappenas), the Ministry of Agrarian and Spatial Planning, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, has been conducting initial mapping of lands across Indonesia that have the potential to be optimized as agricultural production land. This is Indonesia’s first competitive advantage, namely, the millions of hectares of fertile land that the country has and is ready to be utilized to grow various strategic food commodities. Bappenas noted there are more than one million hectares of land that have been converted but are not used optimally. In addition, there are 300 thousand hectares of rice fields plotted by the Indonesian Military (TNI) in many provinces but were not used by farmers and local communities. There are also more lands in the areas previously cleared by the government, such as the Peatland Development Project (PLG) in Central Kalimantan and the Merauke Food Estate in Papua. 

These lands can be readily utilized by the state for food production. However, in order not to repeat the mistakes of former food security programs, this program under the command of the Ministry of Defense will ensure a more integrated industrial ecosystem from upstream to downstream. One example is by setting the target for innovative food security which prioritizes crops that is not only used for food but also as a raw material for national strategic industries. For example, cassava plants that have the highest productivity rate per hectare (around 40 tons per hectare on average). This output is far superior than rice and corn. Cassava cultivation also requires less fertilizer, water and human resources, and at the same time can absorb more CO2 than other crops. 

Furthermore, there are 16 derivative products that can be developed from cassava; food is only one. The most strategic property of cassava is its ability to be processed into raw materials for basic chemical industries, supplying main chemicals for advanced processing industries, including plastics, explosives, bioethanol, cosmetics, medicines, and various other downstream industries. In this case, cassava is the second competitive advantage possessed by Indonesia, and could become a new prima donna that spurs economic growth from agrobusiness as in the booming palm oil industry in the early 1980s. 

There are many other competitive advantages that can be explored to strengthen the government’s food security programs. The key lies in the solidarity of all parties involved, under one command, namely Prabowo Subianto’s. (Harryadin)

Harryadin is a public policy expert. He holds a Ph.d in Marketing from Monash University. Specializes in small-medium enterprise development progammes, he is also a lecturer at Universitas Indonesian (MM and MBA Program). Currently he is the Director of Marketing and Asset Management at Agrinas