First published on The Jakarta Post (27/12/2021)
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the precariousness of Indonesia’s food system, the system refers to the entire actors, activities, and interconnected processes in production, processing, distribution, consumption, and disposal of food products as well as the broader economic, societal and environmental contexts. Disruption in any part of the system can have a ripple effect on the rest of the systems and threaten people’s livelihoods and food security.
For example, a roadblock to restrict mobility in one village can obstruct food distribution, cause delays and food loss, reduce access to food, affect food prices, and hurt farmers’ income.
To mitigate the risks of disruptions, good governance across the food system is of paramount importance. Yet, major governance gaps still exist in Indonesia’s food system. With this backdrop, President Joko Widodo announced the creation of the National Food Agency. Can the National Food Agency answer the governance challenges, or will it compound the complexity of the existing governance structures?
Given the broad range of activities in the food system, at least twelve ministries and agencies are explicitly tasked to regulate and govern portions of the system, from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries to the latest involvement of the Ministry of Defense in the food estate program. Not to mention the subnational governments who play a significant role both in policy and implementation, and Bulog and state-owned enterprises who execute government interventions. This division of labor is necessary to achieve the immense task of ensuring food security for all Indonesians. However, it can introduce tensions and trade-offs especially when competing interests arise.
Governance Challenges in the Food System
The competing interests have resulted in a fragmented and disjointed policy approach to the food system. For example, the Ministry of Health’s dietary guidelines popularized through the Isi Piringku (My Plate) campaign promotes diverse consumption of carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, and other proteins. However, the Ministry of Agriculture prioritizes production only for a few strategic commodities of rice, maize, soybeans, and beef for the sake of self-sufficiency.
The latest food estate program headed by the Ministry of Defense also focused specifically on producing cassava. This strategy created the unintended consequence of limiting the variety of food (Napitupulu, Nurhasan, McCarthy, Samsudin, & Ickowitz, 2021). Production of other food items, such as fruits and vegetables, stagnated or even declined. Now, Indonesia is among the countries with the lowest consumption of fruits and vegetables, far below WHO’s recommended guideline.
Another area of contention is the frequent disagreement on import decisions. Food import is needed to supply raw materials for the food and beverage industry and to stabilize market prices, but is often met with strong pushback. Import decisions on strategic commodities are therefore carefully considered in a closed coordination meeting between the ministries involved. Yet, even with this coordination mechanism, disagreements such as on timing or quota still emerge.
Take these two opposing stories for example: late last year, the industry raised concerns on potential shortage of sugar because of delay and uncertainty of sugar import. This month, President Joko Widodo questioned garlic imports arriving during harvest season and suppressing prices for farmers. Evidently, the import process is still plagued with inefficiencies that harm both consumers and producers alike.
High Hopes for the National Food Agency
The National Food Agency was supposedly designed to address the aforementioned coordination issues. Based on the Presidential Regulation 66/2021, the agency is responsible for ensuring availability and price stability, nutrition and food diversification, logistics of procurement and distribution, and food safety for nine strategic commodities. To do so, the NFA is given the authority to coordinate, set policies, monitor, and implement interventions through state-owned enterprises such as Bulog. The functions of the NFA cut across the functions of the twelve existing ministries and agencies and even take over some decision-making authorities.
For example, the NFA can set export-import policies and decisions which are currently under the Ministry of Trade’s authority, or price references which are under the Ministry of Agriculture’s scope (Article 28). While centralizing almost all aspects of the food system under one lead coordinating agency may sound promising, there are skepticisms whether this new agency can deliver on the insurmountable task. If not planned carefully, the agency may end up being another bureaucratic barrier in an already complex governance structure.
NFA’s effectiveness will depend on the leadership, structure, and culture of the agency. The development of the NFA is the right moment for the Indonesian government to transform our food system governance. The Committee on World Food Security’s guideline suggests three principles for effective food governance, that it must be transparent, democratic, and accountable. The Committee also proposes four general recommendations to improve governance. These recommendations can be adapted for the NFA as well.
First, the NFA should promote policy coordination and coherence by integrating the understanding of food systems and nutrition into local and national development. This starts by conducting a policy stocktaking on the regulations across the different Ministries, and resolving any regulatory overlaps, contradictions, or gaps between the ministries or between national-subnational governments.
Second, the NFA should strengthen multisectoral, multistakeholder, and multilevel coordination and action. To do this, the NFA should not just rely on the ministries and agencies or state-owned enterprises, but should include wider and deeper participation of private sector, academics, farmers, fishers, and civil society organizations in policy dialogues as well as programmatic action. Private enterprise from individual farmers to agriculture companies have contributed in increasing productivity or improving supply chain efficiency, yet they have been overlooked under the dominance of the parastatal agency and food and agriculture state-owned enterprises (Glorya & Nugraha, 2019; Pasaribu, Murwani & Setiawan, 2021). The NFA should consider leveraging the private sector for solutions to the food system challenges.
Third, the NFA should include accountability mechanisms and tools for monitoring and evaluating of policies and programs. Proper monitoring and evaluation are necessary to ensure policies and programs are cost-effective in achieving its intended outcomes. In addition, these mechanisms can mitigate rent-seeking practices that have historically plagued Indonesia’s food systems, as evidenced by the numerous corruption cases revolving around food commodities.
Last but not least, the NFA should strengthen participation and inclusion of indigenous peoples and local communities in the food system. Each region has a unique production, distribution, and consumption pattern. Therefore, a top-down approach may not be suitable. Considering local knowledge to inform policies and programs is critical. The development of the NFA will determine the future of Indonesia’s food system; hence, it is imperative that we all make it right.