June 10, 2011 / 8:33 AM / 6 years ago

Ageing farmers threaten Indonesian food security

4 Min Read

KARAWANG, Indonesia (Reuters Life!) - Ngadiyo, a farmer in Indonesia's West Java, worries that there won't be anyone to grow rice once he retires.

His son and two daughters moved to Jakarta, the capital, several years ago, lured -- like many others -- by more stable jobs and hopes of a more modern life as the nation's economy grows. They only return at harvest time, to help Ngadiyo and neighbors in Karawang, where the average age of farmers is more than 50.

"I still hope that my children will continue to work on this rice farm," the 54-year-old, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, said.

"Many youth are more interested in working in the cities."

According to the Agriculture Ministry, almost 80 percent of the nation's 140 million farmers are now aged 45 or older, compared to an average age of 40 three years ago. Officials of this vast nation are starting to worry that if the trend continues, future food supplies will be affected.

Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation, has committed itself to beefing up food security plans as a result.

It aims for self-sufficiency in rice by increasing output to 75.7 million tonnes by 2014 through improving yields and increasing crop areas in east Indonesia. The 2009 yield was around 50 million tonnes.

But the broad plan does not address one of the major issues: retention of young farmers.

Farming is hard work in much of Indonesia, with planting, harvesting and threshing still done by hand using basic equipment. This manual labor has kept bellies full across the vast archipelago for centuries.

Lure of the Modern

As a result, the lure of the modern is hard to resist.

Asnawi, 39, was a farmer in Sumatra's Aceh before he moved to Jakarta several years ago. He now earns 50,000 rupiah ($6) a day working on construction sites.

"I prefer to work here rather than in farming, (since) I will definitely get money. It is true I can make more if I work as a farmer, but there were risks," he said.

Though he could make as much as 1.5 million rupiah a month, there was always the danger of failed harvests. He also would only have cash in hand once every 6 months, at harvest time.

Agricultural economists say the country needs to draw up a concrete plan to entice young people in farming families to stay, with one step the introduction of modern farming methods.

"I think it will be better for the government to focus on the young farmers, to have training on how to process the food and also teach them how to market the products," said agricultural economist Rina Octaviani.

"So the farmers are not just thinking about selling the product but marketing it. It's different."

Other steps would include educating farmers on the overall industry, ranging from fertilizers to techniques to make farming profitable.

Officials from around Asia are set to converge on Indonesia for the East Asia World Economic Forum on June 12-13, with food security a key topic along with commodity and energy prices.

In addition, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is set to sign a deal this year to build a regional rice reserve to help protect members against price volatility. The group has also agreed, with China, Japan and South Korea, to together build a broader regional rice stockpile of over 700,000 tonnes.

But Octaviani said Indonesia needs to do more on its own to reach its food security goals, given the far-flung nature of the 17,000-island archipelago and a challenging transport situation.

Java, Sulawesi and Sumatra are the biggest rice producers, yet some 80 percent of the population of 235 million eats rice. Monthly rice consumption is 2.7 million tonnes.

"It's easier to have food security in regional (ways) like ASEAN, but within a country like Indonesia, I think it is also a problem to secure food among districts and regions," she added.

Additional reporting by Reuters TV; editing by Elaine Lies

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