x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Rice ban proves hard to swallow in Jakarta

Push to cut soaring demand to reduce burden of imports.

JAKARTA // After a hard morning's toil, most Indonesians like to refuel with a lunch that includes a generous helping of rice.

If it is a Tuesday, however, 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, in the Depok area of the capital, have little appetite for alternatives to the staple grain.

"Even in the holy Quran there is no ban on consuming rice," said Toni.

Indonesia - which was self-sufficient in rice during the 1980s before farmland was used to build housing for the booming population - will in the 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.

Despite a push to expand paddy fields and curb the consumption of rice, the government has forecast that it may be forced to import up to two million tonnes, as it did last year, from south-east Asian exporters Thailand and Vietnam.

"Indonesia will not become another North Korea and starve its own people," said Andy Aaronson, an agricultural economist for the US government. "However, their deficit is projected to widen over time."

The government has used street posters, news conferences and television adverts to promote other home-grown staples, such as cassava. But diluting the population's dependence on the grain is likely to be a stiff challenge.

Suharto, the autocratic former president, 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 said.

It estimates Indonesia will need 40 per cent more rice in the next 25 years. That would mean pushing production yields across the country's lush green paddies to an unfeasibly high six tonnes per hectare, versus a world average of about 4.3 tonnes.

"In the past, our rice production increased by up to 3 per cent 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," said 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 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," said Michael Creed, an economist at National Australia Bank.

"If anything, policies to reduce rice consumption will see Indonesian consumers substitute for other grains ... so this does little to improve food security."