Sunday, January 23, 2011

Coping with food shock in 2011

Food price volatility in international markets during 2010 alarmed many involved parties, including in Indonesia. A warning of a possible food crisis in 2011 has been advocated by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Related international bodies and individual countries should properly address and create various solutions to such a potential crisis.

As reported by the FAO, the benchmark index of farm commodity prices shot up in December 2010, exceeding the levels of the 2007-2008 food crises.

International media also reported that in 2010, the prices of staples such as corn, wheat, soybean and sugar increased by more than 20 percent. In particular, the prices of wheat and corn increased by more than 60 percent.

Today’s food shortages around the world are primarily caused by crop failures. Natural disasters, climate change and pest attacks are the common factors of crop failures. Some main food producing countries experienced serious impacts of crop failures, such as failed wheat harvests due to droughts in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Heavy floods also destroyed farming fields in China, the US and Australia.

Other factors contributing to world food shortages are increasing demand for food from new economic powers with huge populations such as India and China, and increasing demand for food to be converted into ethanol fuel.

Indications of food crisis have also been visible in Indonesia. A significant increase in the price of basic commodities has been widely reported by national media from day to day.

The fact that Indonesia imported 1.33 million tons of rice in 2010 marks the serious condition of national food supply. Import policies must be introduced to maintain stockpiles and help ease consumer prices.

Skyrocketing chili prices also recently become a national issue. While the price hike of rice and sugar was not as fantastic as that of chili, many claims from housewives are addressed to the recent price hike of main foodstuffs.

If the food crisis and price shocks continue, poor households either in urban or rural areas will face the most serious impacts and hardships. The number of households and or people living below the poverty line will significantly increase.

The issues of food and energy crises were among the most important topics recently discussed at the National Summit on the implementation of development programs in 2011 that was chaired by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Several policy conclusions generated from the summit related to the issue of food security were for a short-term solution to be achieved through food price stabilization via market operations, fiscal incentives and increasing rice stocks at the State Logistics Agency (Bulog).

In terms of middle- and long-term solutions, there will be various programs to increase rice production. According to the Coordinating Minister of the Economy Hatta Rajasa, the government has targeted to expand farming fields by 500,000 hectares in 2011, including for food estates. In addition, the Agriculture Ministry aims to increase food production by 5 percent, including rice.

Short-term policies to cope with a potential food crisis including through importing rice, are also, to some extent, necessary. However, we should be more careful and consider out middle and long-term strategies.

Indonesia has potential to become one of the main food producing countries if it is managed properly. More attention and comprehensive support should be paid to help Indonesia tackle food security problems and to allow it to become a player in world food trade.

The availability and proper management of farming land, water, seeds, technologies and capabilities in adapting and mitigating climate change impacts on farming practices will likely be among the keys to our future success.

Opening new farming areas on a large scale through a food estate program will not automatically solve the food supply problem. In the absence of a regulation that requires distribution of farming products from food estates for domestic needs, corporations will likely prefer to export products for more profit. The possible involvement of small holders and landless farmers and the potential impacts and malignant damage to the environment will also be the main issues related to enlargement of farming areas.

Since its independence in 1945, Indonesia has been unable to expand farming land to 14 million hectares despite several new programs. Massive farming land conversion into non-farming purposes has continuously taken place mainly in the most fertile area of Java. More than 100,000 hectares of rice fields have been altered into non-farming areas annually.

On the other hand, Indonesia has almost 30 million hectares of dry farming land. Those fields have the capacity to produce various food crops if properly managed. Dry rice and many kinds of root and tuber crops will be among the products.

Comprehensive policies for foods produced from dry fields could help expand a food diversification program that would ease the burden of rice supply. We have consumed so much rice for so many years that we have become the highest consumer of rice per capita in the world.

The introduction of seeds that have high resistance to pest attacks, drought and or flooding is desperately needed. However, the future world challenges for farming practice are climate change shocks, such as drought and flood.

'Bug Mac' and lovely 'grub': food of the future

Dutch student Walinka van Tol inspects the worm protruding from a half-eaten chocolate praline she's holding, steels herself with a shrug, then pops it into her mouth.

"Tasty ... kind of nutty!" the 20-year-old assures her companions clutching an array of creepy crawly pastries at a seminar, which forecast that larvae and locusts will invade Western menus as the price of steak and chops skyrocket.

Van Tol and about 200 other tasters were guinea pigs for a group of Dutch scientists doing groundbreaking research into insects replacing animal meat as a healthier, more environmentally friendly source of protein.

"There will come a day when a Big Mac costs 120 euros ($163) and a Bug Mac 12 euros, when more people will eat insects than other meat," head researcher Arnold van Huis told a disbelieving audience at Wageningen University in the central Netherlands.

"The best way to start is to try it once," the entomologist insisted.

At break time, there is a sprint for the snack tables with a spread of Thai marinated grasshopper spring rolls, buffalo worm chocolate gnache, and a seemingly innocent pastry "just like a quiche lorraine, but with meal worms instead of bacon or ham", according to chef Henk van Gurp.

The snacks disappear quickly to the delight of the chef and organisers. But the university's head of entomology Marcel Dicke knows that changing Westerners' mindset will take more than disguising a worm in chocolate.

"The problem is here," he tells AFP, pointing at his head while examining an exhibition featuring a handful of the world's more than 1,200 edible insect species including worms, gnats, wasps, termites and beetles.

Three species: meal worms, buffalo worms and grasshoppers, are cultivated by three farmers in the Netherlands for a small but growing group of adventurous foodies.

"People think it is something dirty. It generates a Fear Factor response," citing the reality series that tests competitors' toughness by feeding them live insects.

Dicke said Westerners had no choice but to shed their bug bias, with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation predicting there will be nine billion people on the planet by 2050 and agricultural land already under pressure.

"We have to eat less meat or find an alternative," said Dicke, who claims to sit down to a family meal of insects on a regular basis.

Bugs are high in protein, low in fat and efficient to cultivate -- 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of feed yields six to eight kilograms of insect meat compared to one kilogram of beef, states the university's research.

Insects are abundant, produce less greenhouse gas and manure, and do not transfer any diseases, when eaten, that can mutate into a dangerous human form, say the researchers.

"The question really should be: 'Why do we NOT eat insects?," said Dicke, citing research that the average person unwittingly eats about 500 grams of bug particles a year anyway -- in strawberry jam, bread and other processed foods.

According to Van Huis, about 500 types of insects are eaten in Mexico, 250 in Africa and 180 in China and other parts of Asia -- mostly they are a delicacy.

One avid European convert is Marian Peters, secretary of the Dutch insect breeders association, Venik, who likes to snack on grasshoppers and refers to them as "the caviar of insects".

On a visit to an insect farm in Deurne in the south east Netherlands, she greedily peels the wings and legs off a freeze dried locust and crunches down with gusto.

"They are delicious stir fried with good oil, garlic and red pepper and served in a taco," said Peters.

The owner of the farm, Roland van de Ven, produces 1,200kg of meal worms a week of which "one or two percent" for human consumption, the rest as animal feed.

"When you see an insect, it is a barrier. I think people will come around if the insects are processed and not visible in food," he explains while running his fingers through a plastic tray teeming with worms -- one of hundreds stacked ceiling-high in refrigerated breeding rooms.

"It is harder to eat a pig you have seen on a spit than a store-bought steak. This is similar."

The farmer said human demand for his "mini-livestock" was growing slowly -- from 300 kilograms in 2008 to 900 kilograms last year.

For those who won't be swayed, there is hope for less grizzly alternative. Wageningen University is leading research into the viability of extracting insect protein for use in food products.

"We want to determine if we can texturise it to resemble meat, like they do with soy," said Peters, clutching a bag of pinkish powder -- protein taken from meal worms she hopes will one day be a common pizza ingredient.