Feeding the future through embracing disruption

opinion October 02, 2017 01:00

By Anindita Sitepu

Who will be the farmers? Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo recently inquired about the lack of interest from young graduates of the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) in taking up farming, when addressing their anniversary event.

With 260 million people, surely food security, the goal of all Indonesian leaders past and present, would require improved agricultural productivity? However, does agricultural production depend solely on producing more farmers? I am afraid it does not.

The world is changing economically, demographically, healthwise and also climatewise. To feed the projected 9 billion people sharing the planet in 2050, food production must be increased by 60 per cent, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

However, the World Food Program reported in 2014 that 9.5 million children in Indonesia under 5 years old are malnourished. Overweight and obese adults have almost doubled in number in the past decade, resulting in a startling increase in non-communicable diseases.

Ironically, while 20 million Indonesians go to sleep hungry every day, 300 kilograms of food per capita is wasted each year. Many regions already suffering from high rates of hunger and food insecurity are predicted to experience the greatest decline in food production caused by a rapidly changing climate.

Paradoxically, the ambition to achieve high food output has placed a great strain on natural resources. The agriculture sector is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, where 20-30 per cent of the total comes from the agriculture, forestry and associated land-use sectors.

So how can we ensure food security and sufficient nutrition without compromising the social, economic and environmental conditions for future generations?

Innovation can break the systemic issue that is creating a vicious cycle: some of the problems in our current agriculture practices are intensifying climate change, while climate change affects food production.

Yet innovation hasn’t always been the trademark of this particular industry. In fact, overcoming reluctance to change and accepting how different the industry will have to look would be the first barriers to clear.

Now is the right time to embrace the opportunities of technological innovations. After all, in an era that primes technological advancements and related changes in the global economy, agriculture is not immune to the changes caused by digital disruption. We don’t all need to wield hoes to be farmers, do we?

Indonesian entrepreneurs and visionaries are already realising the opportunities to improve the way we produce, harvest, distribute and consume food.

Tunggul Dian Santoso, a graduate of Pratama Mulia Polytechnic in Surakarta, Central Java, has invented the Genitech, a solar-powered tool using ultrasonic waves to drive pests away from crops. Other than being more environmentally friendly than pesticides, the water-resistant tool also boosts rice crops.

Tanihub forms a digital platform to provide farmers with information on farming techniques and commodity prices. By improving access to information for farmers, they can improve the efficiency of their crop management. They also increase their bargaining power with middlemen.

Urban farming is a growing trend for citizens of densely populated cities like Jakarta where land availability is extremely limited. Communities are initiating vertical farming and hydroponic gardens, with local government support.

In fact, the capital’s municipality is planning a grand design for an urban farming programme to meet food needs through local farmers.

Michelli Wirahadi, an interior design student from Petra Christian University in Surabaya, East Java, has invented a styrofoam-like product made from a compound of orange peel, turning waste into a functional object.

These promising technologies, among many others, are transforming every link in the food chain, from farm to fork. By providing space for innovations to shift the perspective on how our food is made, we can collectively realise our right to a healthy and secure food system. Only then will agriculture be able to do more with less: making food more accessible and available for all, while making sure the planet is in good care.

We need the farm of the future today. But first, we must ensure it is actually possible, by creating public policies supporting innovation and allowing multiple sectors to drive disruptive innovation. More supportive policies, laws and public spending on infrastructure would help create a favourable investment climate for innovation.

Then Jokowi need not ask again who the farmers will be.

The writer is programme director at the Centre for Indonesia’s Strategic Development Initiatives, Jakarta.