Indonesia’s Rice Dependence: An International Political Economy Perspective

In February 2024 Indonesia faced a food crisis when the price of rice reached the historical high of IDR 18.000 per Kg.

In February 2024 Indonesia faced a food crisis when the price of rice reached the historical high of IDR 18.000 per Kg (Nugroho, 2024). With the rapid price increase severely impacting lower-class families, the State-owned Logistics Bureau (BULOG) sold the Country’s rice reserve at a lower price; citizens queued for hours to buy the subsidised rice (BBC-Indonesia, 2024) a phenomenon reflecting the fragility of Indonesia’s Food Security.

Being the staple food for more than 3.5Billion of Asia’s population (Devkota et al., 2019; FAO 2018) rice affects Global Food Security. A population’s daily consumption of rice (Stanley, 2023) requires constant supply and any disruption risks a nation’s food security. Indonesia is the world’s third-largest consumer of rice with an average of 124 kg of rice per person per year (Subejo, 2024; Shahbandeh, 2024), is also the third largest producer with 53.3 million tonnes produced in 2018 (FAO, 2023). China and India ranked first and second. Other Asian countries, such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, and Bangladesh also have high rice consumption per capita (Muthayya et al., 2014).  Indonesia’s population is calculated to reach approximately 296 million people by 2030 (BPS 2023; Siahaan 2023), Indonesia’s food security is challenged by the lack of domestic production and a flawed import policy (Gandharum et al, 2020; Gryani 2018). Its path-dependence on rice importation began in 1995 (Basri, 2018) with 3.0MM tons still being imported in 2023, including 1.38MM tons from Thailand (Nurhayati-Wolff, 2023; Siahaan, 2024). This import dependence means that issues within Global Food Security severely impact Indonesia. The 2007-2008 World Food Crisis showed how food-producing countries stopped exporting, prioritising domestic supply in response to global crop failures (GNAFC, 2022). 

The perspective of International Political Economy in Everyday Life (Brasset et al., 2022) helped prompt these questions. Equipped with vast resources to produce its own rice, what factors drove Indonesia’s dependence on importation? What caused dependence on rice and how might Indonesia achieve National Food Security and minimise dependence on importation?

Rice dependency: history and political economy

Rice being institutionalised as the main staple food is a recent historical phenomenon as part of the Country’s political economic strategy, evidenced as follows.

Instead of rice, Sago (Metroxylon sagu) was Indonesia’s authentic staple food consumed for centuries since the Sriwijaya Kingdom era (7th – 13th Century) whose history is engraved in Borobudur temple’s relief (Tuasikal, 2019) and also recorded during Marco Polo’s visit to Sumatra in 1292 (Yusuf, 2023). The native Sago Palm is spread across islands including Sumatra, Maluku, Kalimantan, Papua, Sulawesi, and Java (Ehara et al., 2018). Other authentic staple foods include cassava, sweet potato, corn, and millet.

Rice was introduced by migrants from China and India in the 16th Century (Widihandojo, 2021; Hong, 2020) although the shift to rice as the main staple occurred in Soeharto’s New Order era. Following the World’s Green Revolution Soeharto’s regime enacted a policy of Panca Usaha Tani (Five Pillars of Farming) to achieve national self-sufficiency in rice (Nugraheni & Purnama, 2013). Farmers were trained to use fertilisers, establish better irrigation and cultivation, eradicate pests and disease, and use high-yielding varieties through the Bimbingan Massal (Massive Guidance) programme (Novitri, 2021). The national self-sufficiency policy won popular support which institutionalised rice as the main staple food (Neilson & Arifin, 2012). In 1984 Indonesia became self-sufficient and was able to export rice (Ivan, 2022), though this legacy of Soeharto lasted less than ten years; rice importation began in 1995 and continues today (Basri, 2018).

Consecutive governments’ adherence to rice as the main staple continues irrespective of their inability to produce sufficient domestically. Rather than optimising food diversification governments’ food security policy continues centring on rice through intervention measures, including price subsidises (Rozaki, 2021), hence strengthening the path-dependence. The State-owned BULOG is tasked with securing food supplies and availability, controlling food prices and distribution, providing rice subsidies, and the management of food reserves and rice importation (BULOG, n.d.; Menteri Keuangan Republik Indonesia, 2015). Presidential Regulation No. 48/2016 placed BULOG within the National Food Security Framework, tasked to stabilise rice prices at all levels through an effective food supply chain. ‘BULOG SIAGA’ is the latest programme to ensure citizens’ access to food inexpensively, specifically rice (BULOG, 2024).

The State’s institutionalisation of rice established citizens’ belief that rice is Indonesia’s native staple food. Since institutions affect behaviour they shape citizens’ preferences that become accepted as culture (Steinmo, 2000), the intra-generational belief in rice is difficult to change (Rusdi, 2023). Rice’s addictive component exacerbated this path-dependence as its Glycemic Index (GI) produces instant energy due to its rapid breakdown into glucose that can cause addiction; rice’s GI index is the highest compared to other staple foods (Glycemic-Index-Guide, 2019). Embedded as culture and compounded by its addictive component, rice is used as a political tool, including its use as an inducement during presidential, parliament, and local leaders’ election campaigns (DPRD, 2024), highlighting how the Country’s political economy affects citizens’ everyday life. Government intervention through price subsidy (BPK-RI, 2010) strengthens rice path-dependence and jeopardises efforts to diversify staple foods (Trilaksana & Ihsan, 2020; Davidson, 2018).

Rice import dependence and ‘sago solution’

These questions remain; why must Indonesia import rice and not produce sufficient domestically?

Proponents of rice importation argue the following. Importation is crucial as the high population growth generates high consumption compared to domestic production capacity (Widarjono, 2018). Also, production costs are 2.5 times higher than in Vietnam and twice that of Thailand (Komalasari, 2023). Other factors attributing to insufficient production include climate change, prolonged soil degradation, crop failure, and lack of funding.  The prolonged dry El-Nino season led to extensive crop failures, resulting in reduced supply and price increases leading to the February 2024 crisis (Walidaini, 2024). Analysts and some Parliament members added that the Presidential candidates’ use of rice as an electioneering tool exacerbated the price and supply crisis (Walidaini, 2024). Importation at a lower cost stabilises price and supply (Nugroho, 2024).

Contradicting views highlight that historically importation has never exceeded 2.00MM tonnes but in 2023 3.0MM tonnes were imported (Annur, 2024), a 613 percent increase from 2022 (Kristianus, 2024). In March 2024 Government increased the import quota from 2.0 to 3.6MM tonnes (DPR-RI, 2024). Corruption during importation has been widely acknowledged with former President Megawati Sukarno Putri stating her awareness of corruption costing the Nation IDR 25.4Billion of import tax and IDR 3.1Billion in income tax (Andryanto & Muhid, 2024). This occurred in 2005 with PT Hexatama Finindo’s President Director becoming a suspect, as well as a member from Bea Cukai (Customs) (BPKP, 2005). Another case in 2016 cost the Nation IDR 2.1Billion (Rifa’i, 2023) and in 2023 is estimated to cost the Nation IDR 127,5Billion (KPK, 2023).

From the path-dependence Political Economy lens the phenomena can be explained as follows. National Food Security policy has tilted towards large corporations, promoting supply, price stability, and profit rather than farmers’ welfare (Kristianus, 2024). Powerful supporters of importation resist change as deviation compromises their political and economic interests, corruption in importation provides strong evidence (Putri, 2023; Laras, 2023). The government’s neo-mercantilist strategy (Cohn, 2016) to control and intervene in market prices strengthens rice-dependence and discourages food diversification efforts. Moreover, political rhetoric to reduce importation (another neo-mercantilist strategy), as spoken by President Joko Widodo (Firmansyah, 2024), clearly contradicts its policy to increase the import quota in March 2024. Furthermore, whilst alternative staple foods (sago) are available to minimise rice-dependence, the Government appears reluctant to pursue this.

Native to Indonesia, Sago has been regarded as one of the most suitable staple foods (Goan-Hong et al., 1984). Ecologically, sago trees grow well in mineral soils and acidic peatlands (Wulan, 2018) with Indonesia home to more than 24 million hectares of peatlands (UNOPS, 2020).Approximately 150-300 kg of starch is produced by one tree (Media-Center-Serdang-Berdagai, 2022), and one million hectare of intense planting is enough to supply the whole population of Indonesia for one year (Lubis, 2018). Planting and cultivation have also been reported to help improve the welfare of farmers and result in less environmental damage and pollution (Wulan, 2018). As well as requiring less land than rice, sago requires less maintenance and labour (Bintoro et al., 2010). To reduce dependence on rice and address national food insecurity, the Government should pursue sago as the national staple. Technology to produce rice from sago starch (not from paddy) is also available (Puspantari et al., 2023; (BPN, 2017) (cite, xxxx) as a solution to phase-out resource-dependence on paddy and slowly change customs and culture.

Discussion and Conclusion

Through the perspective of International Political Economy in Everyday Life, this paper analysed factors that caused Indonesia’s dependence on rice and drove importation. It highlights how heavy reliance on importation increases National Food Security risk and subject to the fragility of Global Food Security.

Dependence on rice has largely been influenced by Indonesia’s political economy that institutionalised it as the main staple food within its National Food Security framework. Began during Soeharto’s regime and continued by subsequent Governments, various policies including price subsidies and minimal food diversification efforts strengthened citizens’ dependence on rice creating a full-circle-loop: citizens demand Governments provide affordable and sufficient supply; Government uses rice as a political tool to stabilise power and induce voters’ support during Presidential, Parliament, and local elections.

The international political economy perspective also highlights how the path-dependence on rice and its importation is difficult to break when powerful actors within the Government and corporate sector collude. Mega corruption cases and the Government’s decision in 2024 to increase the importation quota reflect this argument; actors resist change since deviation compromises their political and economic interests. The crisis in February 2024 shows how the political economy impacted the everyday life of citizens, many of them struggling to access affordable rice. Food security is challenged by the Government’s inability to produce sufficient supply. Population growth, climate change-related crop failures, and high domestic production costs are the rationale argued for importation. Indonesia’s rice importation was highest in 2023 at 3.0MM tonnes, putting National Food Security at risk of other countries’ actions and the Global Food Security chain.

Evident during the World’s food crisis in 2007-2008, major food-producing countries curbed exports to meet domestic demand given crop failures globally and drastic price increases. Moreover, in 2021, 193MM people mostly in Africa and Asia faced acute food insecurity putting their lives in immediate danger (GNAFC, 2022).This phenomenon should alert the Government to urgently minimise its dependence on rice and its importation and seriously pursue food diversification, specifically promoting Sago. Consumed since the Sriwijaya Kingdom era (7th – 13th Century), Sago requires less land, water, maintenance costs and labour, and possesses a significant yield potential that can address National Food Security issues. The government’s strategy should include calls for significant investment, altering citizen’s consumption habits, and improved management and transparency in resource allocation and export-import implementation.

Aisya Muyassara Wisnugroho
Aisya Muyassara Wisnugroho
I am a bachelor student at Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia majoring in International Relations. I am Intellectually curious and readily engage socially, I embrace challenges and face risks without fear. My motivation to study International Relations is not only to broaden my knowledge and become globally aware geo-politically and culturally, but also to change my country, Indonesia, positively.