Rice – A handful of life.

I dedicate this week’s column to all the rice farmers of Indonesia who help feed the nation.

Introduction: This is about the staple food of nearly two thirds of the world’s population – rice. In the aftermath of the Green Revolution of the 20th century many Asian countries had been able to feed their starving millions. It brought about a prosperity that unleashed a massive surge of industrial development thereby being directly instrumental in the creation of mega cities that today boast of ultra modern facilities. In spite of the technological advancements and the rise of prosperity in the Middle Class, ‘subsistence living’ and hunger have remained the common denominator in the Asian Diasporas. According to some experts, one of the reasons has been the constant rise in food prices due to the increase in energy costs. So the poor are left with one basic essential to keep them alive – a bowl of rice. Unfortunately, the price of this bowl of rice has just gone up, again.

Where does one begin; in the underground tunnels with the Viet Cong in the 60s, with Gandhi on the Dandi March in the first half of the last century or on the streets of Paris in 1789 with rioters demanding bread.

You may ask – what do these three have in common? The first won the Vietnam War with a handful of rice; the second brought down the British rule in India with a handful of salt and the third changed France forever with food riots that ended in a bloodbath. There are people out there who would disagree with this hypothesis for it attempts to simplify complex issues relating to race, culture, political affiliations and religious beliefs. In essence it was food that decided the outcome of the Vietnam War, the non-violent movement in India and the French Revolution.

Food will always determine the political health and future of a country for it is the catalyst of life.

In Asia the staple food is rice. Here in Indonesia and in particular in Bali it is part of the jigsaw puzzle that completes the picture perfect of a people who have toiled the good earth to sustain their lives and honour their Gods. The result has been the continuance of a vibrant religious culture.

A month ago while sampling Cajun chicken and Cajun dirty rice at Devilicious, a small warung on Jalan Gootama, Ubud, I bumped into Dan Kennedy an American who has done his Masters in Agriculture from an Ivy League College. He is an expert in the field of agriculture and has been working in Africa and Asia for the last two decades. We confabulated into the wee hours of the morning about the importance of rice in the daily life of an Asian. Since then we have become good friends.

A few days after the encounter with Dan, I spoke to Made who is a rice farmer. This is what he had to say:

“I have been a farmer for the last 15 years. This land which you see me planting rice saplings on is 25 are. It belonged to me a long time ago. I had to sell it, as the rice production could not sustain my family of six. Now I cultivate this land for the new owner. We share the cost of production (seedlings/fertilisers) and the harvest 50-50. However, at the time of harvesting we get people from Java to help us. In return I pay them in rice from my share of the 50%. The rice I carry home after every crop is just enough to feed the family so there is no surplus to sell. We get two crops a year. In the interim time between harvests I do odd jobs to pay the bills for my school going children and my aged parents. My wife works as a Pembantu when she’s not sick or looking after my parents and our children. If I owned land today I would sell it to a Bule for his villa. A number of my friends have done the same as in the long run one earns much more money and it’s so easy. We don’t have to work so hard just for a bowl of rice.”

I met Dan over a Po’boy sandwich at Devilicious prior to writing this column so I could pick his brain and seek his views on the continuing conversion of rich fertile rice lands into commercial properties for Malls, Villas etc.; And what could be done to increase rice production on the dwindling farmlands in Bali thereby ensuring the prosperity of the farmers in question.

“Mark there is no perfect solution to this vexing problem. However, some of the following suggestions are already being implemented on the isle…”

I have paraphrased his response for the sake of brevity.

—————-From Ubud down to the south are the fertile lands of rice fields. However, it is these lands that are fast being converted for commercial use. The reality is that one cannot halt development. The commercial establishments that come up employ many people. This creates personal wealth and lifts the overall standard of living.

However, food is the basic ingredient for sustaining life and more importantly keeping a culture alive. Therefore, the price of basic food items must be within the reach of the poor but at the same time being profitable enough for the farmer to carry on his trade. This is a dilemma for most governments – the balancing act between haves and have-nots.

The increase in energy costs worldwide has affected the prices of all commodities. In developed countries like USA, Japan and Australia the average household expenditure on food has risen from 8% to 12% approx. In the case of Developing Countries in Asia it has shot up from 60% to 80%; The impact being felt on the poorer sections of society.

Here in Bali prices have been rising and the people are spending a lot more money on food. See The Bali Times, Paradox in Paradise, Silence of the Lambs, issue dated May 2-8, 2008. Coupled with this is the reality that the dwindling area under cultivation only decreases food production thereby fuelling increase in prices.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. So in short there are programs that have been launched on the isle to introduce intensive farming. You may ask what is intensive farming? Here’s a brief explanation.

01. Transplanting rice seedlings when they are 7 to 10 days old instead of the normal 20/30 days.

02. Planting one seedling in a hole. Presently 3 to 4 seedlings are planted together.

03.The distance between plants is normally 15 cm. With the new system it is up to 50cm apart.

04.Alternate flooding and draining of the field to conserve water and increase plant growth. It is a fallacy that the rice fields need to be flooded at all times.

Results of intensive farming techniques:
Lot more root growth, more oxygen to the rice plant, more nutrients resulting in more panicles (rice stems). Only 50% of water used for irrigation. Crop output increases from the usual 2-3 tonnes per hectare to about 12-15 tonnes per hectare.

George Monbiot writes in The Guardian; “the Nobel Economist, Amartya Sen discovered that there is an inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of crops they produce per hectare. The smaller they are, the greater the yield. Sen’s observation has been tested in India, Pakistan, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay.” He goes on to refer to a recent study of farming in Turkey that revealed that farms with less than a hectare are 20 times as productive as farms of more than 10 hectares! ——————————————-

To sum it up in lay man’s terms – we can use more land for commercial use but we need to ensure that intensive farming is implemented across the isle because this method of cultivation uses less land, less water, less fertilisers and gives a much higher yield per hectare.

But there exists one unresolved issue and that is the price of rice. Suppressing the purchase price from the farmer to make it affordable for all consumers creates a piquant situation – why should a farmer sell his produce below the ‘actual’ value and what incentive is there for him to continue to be a farmer? But then again how will those living on the edge of humanity survive and feed their offspring?

My friend Augustian, a painter who hails from Sumatra, told me that on Zakat Fitrah (30th day of Ramadan) a form of tax for the 30 day period is paid (as an offering to Allah) in the form of two and a half percent of the month’s earnings in cash or the equivalent in rice to the Masjid, which in turn distributes the same to the poor people so that they can celebrate Id-ul-Fitri.

In Bali rice is eaten and served to the Gods in all offerings. According to Made the farmer, “Brother, a handful of rice is a handful of life”.

Rice is much more than food; it embodies the universe. By sustaining its cultivation and making it affordable for all we are in truth preserving life and honouring our Maker.

I shall end here with a prayer that the rights of the less privileged (read as poor people) across the planet be enshrined in the Constitutions of all countries under the heading – The Right to Eat.

Note: The assumptions arrived at in this column have been inspired by the following books: Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel: Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond: A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan: A History of India by Romila Thapar: And conversations with Balinese farmers, a villa owner and Dan Kennedy.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om