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Subsidized fertilizer won't fix Indonesia's agriculture: Experts

Jakarta Post - January 30, 2024

Yohana Belinda, Jakarta – The increased distribution of subsidized fertilizer has done little to improve agricultural production in the country, industry players and experts say, noting that other aspects must be enhanced for Indonesia to achieve agricultural self-sufficiency.

Many local farmers struggle to offer rice, the most important food crop in the country, at prices that make their produce competitive with imported goods, according to the Indonesian Farmers Alliance (API), as they often rely on imported seedlings.

Numerous local rice varieties are all but extinct, API founder Muhammad Nuruddin told The Jakarta Post.

Also, Indonesia is undergoing a "tremendous conversion" of agricultural land to nonagricultural land, especially in Java, Muhammad added, pointed out that achieving agricultural self-sufficiency remains one of the country's greatest challenges.

"The annual conversion [...] of existing land to industrial land, property and other uses amounts to roughly 600,000 hectares," he said, explaining that that led to a reduction in arable land for cultivators and a subsequent decline in the nation's rice output, while imports of rice were increasing.

On Jan. 2, 2023, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo increased the state budget allocation for fertilizer subsidies by Rp 14 trillion (US$884 million) expressing concern about the impact of the El Nino weather phenomenon on agricultural yields in the region and on options for importing food.

The President also noted that the country's population was expected to grow by 4 million to 4.5 million annually and stated global events including the Russia-Ukraine war and the COVID-19 pandemic had disrupted fertilizer supply chains, Tenggara Strategics, a think tank related to The Jakarta Post, reported on Jan. 12.

Muhammad said El Nino also led to increased growth of parasites and said plant diseases had drastically reduced Indonesia's production. Meanwhile, he pointed to the longer-term threat of climate change and natural disasters on Indonesia's agricultural sector.

Muhammad lamented that Indonesia placed "excessive reliance" on foreign research and hybrid seeds despite the country's favorable volcanic soil conditions amid its location on the so-called Ring of Fire.

"High tax rates must be imposed on imported agricultural products in order to safeguard domestic prices and the long-term viability of farming," he said, noting that the low welfare of farmers was another issue blighting Indonesian agriculture.

"We must prioritize the preservation of genetic resources as the foundation of our food security. We have a diverse range of staple foods [not just rice]. Farmers' right to seeds is not adequately safeguarded, which is why we find ourselves trapped in agricultural free trade agreements."

Rusli Abdulah, a researcher with the center for food, energy and sustainable development at the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (INDEF), meanwhile, said fertilizer was overused on Indonesian land and greater emphasis should instead be placed on the education of farmers.

"This [large-scale fertilizer use] has been repeatedly addressed since the beginning of the Reform era," Rusli stressed.

"From the 1980s to the 1990s, during the New Order era [which preceded the Reform era], instructors were present in the field extensively; this is no longer the case," he added.

While educational videos and the like had been made available through Agriculture Ministry channels, that was insufficient to improve farming methods, he claimed.

Rusli also noted that the Indonesian farming community was aging as many people of the younger generation chose not to pursue an agricultural career as they preferred to move to cities and work in other sectors.

The resulting limited involvement of younger people in farming, in turn, jeopardized or at least slowed down the use of new technology and progress in the sector.

He also noted that trade deals were leaving the country open to global markets at a time when much local agriculture production was not competitive and suggested the government reexamine its stance on that issue.

Land distribution, he added, was another critical issue requiring an immediate resolution.

The Jokowi administration made agrarian reform one of nine priorities under its national medium-term development plan (RPJMN) for 2015-2019, but Rusli argued that the effort had failed, as indicated by the number of smallholder farmer households climbing from 14.12 million in 2013 to 16.89 million in 2023.

Rusli said successful agrarian reform would not have prompted an increase in the number of smallholder farmers.

The 16.89 million smallholder operations, which now account for more than 60 percent of the 27.76 million total farming households, generally achieve lower productivity than larger-scale farming operations.

API chairman Henry Saragih emphasized the issue of land redistribution for the benefit of farmers, highlighting the limited land available to smallholder farmers at present.

"In Indonesia, the majority of [land available for farming] is cultivated with nonfood crops. While food [plantation] land is only 7.4 million ha in size, oil palm [plantations] already cover 16 million ha, which may soon reach 20 million ha," Henry said.

In conclusion, Rusli said, subsidized fertilizers alone were insufficient to fix agriculture in Indonesia; regeneration, more education and land redistribution were also required for farmers.

Source: https://asianews.network/subsidized-fertilizer-wont-fix-indonesias-agriculture-experts