garlic in bucket

FOOD EXPEDITIONS: Indonesia’s garlic woes exacerbated by uncompetitive breeding tech.

Garlic is an indispensable ingredient in Indonesian cuisine that is used to season various dishes.  But local garlic growers are unable to fulfill domestic requirements. As per official statistics in 2020, the demand for garlic soared to 561,000 tons while locally procured stocks only amounted to a paltry 88,000 tons, a figure that was even lower than the 88,200-ton harvest recorded for the previous year.

Due to the persistent shortfall in production capabilities, Indonesian consumers rely heavily on foreign imports to satisfy their craving for garlic. This reality was starkly revealed when a previous attempt in 2014 to curb imports of Chinese garlic resulted in a shortage that caused prices to soar dramatically by 31 percent to 70 000 rupiah per kg. Moreover, the superior taste and fragrance of locally sourced produce notwithstanding, imported Chinese garlic is generally more popular due to its typically larger bulb size as well as its often-lower price.     Unsurprisingly, Indonesian garlic growers have complained about the inundation of the market by competing products from China.

Domestic producers are handicapped by low productivity levels that prevent them from competing successfully against Chinese exporters.  Local farms typically yield a meager 8.7 tons of garlic per hectare. By contrast, Chinese suppliers churn out 25.3 tons of produce for a plot of the same size.  Indonesian garlic growers are also hobbled by a lack of access to advanced breeding technology that would permit the cultivation of garlic strains with larger bulbs.

Their plight is further exacerbated by the failure of local authorities to furnish the cultivators with seeds that would allow them to grow varieties of garlic which would develop more quickly. Additionally, garlic harvests are often blighted by recurrent outbreaks of viral diseases which stunt the size of the garlic bulbs as evinced by the spread of the highly contagious white rot pathogen that has stymied efforts to foster garlic cultivation in West Lombok.  Given these constraints, domestic farmers no longer see garlic cultivation as a viable livelihood, leading to a further diminishment of the country’s ability to generate adequate quantities of this staple.

Indonesia’s dependence on Chinese imports proved to be costly when global supply chains were disrupted by the Covid 19 pandemic in 2020, resulting in a widespread scarcity which propelled garlic prices from 25,000 to 46,600 rupiah per kilogram. In response, the government decided to kickstart the large-scale cultivation of garlic and other essential root crops as part of a broader campaign to boost the country’s overall food generation capacities. One such scheme was pioneered in North Sumatra province and involved local farmers from Ria- Ria district cultivating garlic and shallot plantations under government oversight.

woman with bracelets on hand chopping garlic on wooden board
Photo by Ravi Sharma on

However, the necessity of laboring on these plantations prevented the villagers from tending to their own rice fields.  The rice yield consequently plunged by a staggering 70 percent. Nor were the affected farmers able to sell the crops from the plantations at the local state regulated cooperatives for a fair price that would have enabled them to recoup their losses. Ultimately, 30 percent of households in the district were deprived of food supplies minimally sufficient to feed them for at least a year, prompting assertions by local activists that the government’s policies had reduced the villagers to a state of food insecurity.   

  Indonesian garlic growers are also hobbled by a lack of access to advanced breeding technology that would permit the cultivation of garlic strains with larger bulbs.

Furthermore, indigenous people in Ria-Ria district saw their land rights being eroded as a direct result of the above mentioned project.  Government agencies were accused of appropriating ancestral landholdings that the native Batak clans had resided on for generations. The seized farmlands were subsequently leased to private food processing companies that were awarded the sole privilege of selling the resulting harvests of garlic and other commercially valuable crops. As noted by certain observers, the loss of their lands compelled these tribal communities to labor for the agribusinesses that had displaced them, thus depriving the Batak clans of the economic autonomy that they had formerly enjoyed.

The philosopher Thomas Pogge claims that the deliberate action of inflicting poverty on other agents is tantamount to committing a human rights violation. When viewed through this particular ethical lens, it is evident that Indonesia’s pursuit of a garlic bonanza has clearly undermined the basic rights of some of its most vulnerable citizens.  

WORDS: Shree Rahman.

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