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Sago championed as green alternative to Indonesia's appetite for rice

by Veby Mega Indah | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 1 May 2012 11:47 GMT

Switch to palm starch "rice" could cut costs, save forests - but will people eat it?

JAKARTA (AlertNet) - Researchers in Indonesia, South East Asia’s biggest rice-eating nation, are promoting artificial rice made from sago as an alternative staple in response to worries that climate change will cut paddy rice production and endanger food supplies.

Growing demand for rice has contributed to farmers cutting down rainforest to clear land for paddy, according to Mohammad Hasroel Thayieb, a professor of agriculture at the University of Indonesia.

Thayieb believes he has a promising alternative that could improve the country’s food supply and protect its forests – making rice from sago palm.

 “It’s still rice, just not from paddy,” he says.

The Southeast Asian nation has 6 million hectares of sago palms growing naturally in its forests. Each tree can produce between 300 kg and 600 kg of sago powder over an eight to 12-year cycle, Thayieb said.

Based on the abundance of this natural resource, some food and environmental experts argue that sago rice offers a way of shoring up Indonesia’s food security, particularly as the planet warms and agriculture comes under increasing pressure from changing weather patterns.

A move toward sago rice also could help resolve the government’s dilemma of whether to try to keep what remains of the world’s third largest rainforest standing, or allow large swathes to be cut down for agriculture – including rice farming.

If Indonesians switched to sago from rice, only one third of Java’s land surface would be needed to produce the annual requirement of 31 million tonnes of sago powder, researchers say.

Indonesia’s 240 million people are avid rice eaters, each consuming an average 135 kg of rice per year. That compares with 60-75 kg per capita in other Asian nations like Thailand or Malaysia where rice is a staple food.

But during the 66 years since Indonesia gained independence, the country has only been able to produce enough rice to meet its needs 1984 and 2008.

To fill the gap, it usually imports rice from Vietnam and Thailand. That leaves the country vulnerable to international price hikes – which can stoke domestic inflation – and pushes the issue of food security in rice onto the political agenda for every presidential election.


Climate change threatens to make Indonesia’s rice security situation even more tenuous.

Indonesia’s rice production has been climbing 2.5 percent each year, but given the existing shortfall that may not be enough to feed a population growing by 1.6 percent each year, experts say.

Traditional farming methods also leave Indonesia’s food production vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including more extreme weather and flooding, rising sea-level and the arrival of new insects and diseases as temperatures get warmer.

Farmers usually plant their paddy crops at the beginning of the dry season, which runs from April to August. But rainfall patterns are becoming more erratic, bringing unexpected downpours that ruin fledgling plants and dry spells during the wet season.

This year, the agriculture ministry predicts that only half the country’s paddy fields can be planted due to increasingly abnormal weather.  

 Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of the president’s special advisory team, says the government wants more research on adjusting Indonesian food habits to deal with climate shifts.

“We are aware of the danger to food security because of climate change, and we have already made some proposals about adapting Indonesia’s agriculture, and sent them to several ministries to be studied further,” he explains.

But the government has yet to take up the cause of sago as an alternative to rice and a route to improved food security.


Thayieb is under no illusions that ordinary people will be easily persuaded to reduce the amount of rice they eat.

“It would take a lot more effort to get people to give up rice and start eating sago, which looks like glue,” Thayieb said.  

Sago is extracted from the trunk of sago palms as a starchy pith, and dried into powder. Often it is then mixed with water to form a paste and rubbed through a sieve to produce grains sold as pearl sago.  

After being boiled, this is stickier than rice, and the pearls sometimes have an uncooked white spot in the middle. Experts know they must fix these problems if they want Indonesians to take the artificial rice seriously.

There are social barriers to overcome too. Indonesians’ love affair with rice is partly rooted in the perception that eating it proves a person is no longer poor.

Hari Nugraha, 39, from the East Javan village of Jombang, used to eat “nasi ampog” made from rice mixed with maize. This was a popular meal until the late 1970s, when former President Suharto used government policy to boost supplies of rice – a grain his family business was involved in managing and trading.

Farmers received cheap chemical fertilisers and paddy seeds, made by Suharto-owned companies, and were encouraged to grow rice in flooded paddies.

Growing and consuming rice was promoted as a national food strategy, even though Indonesia has more than 1,000 ethnic minorities who have traditionally eaten maize, potato, sweet potato, cassava or sago.

“The policy made rice popular, and I started to feel it’s not so cool or modern to eat nasi ampog, as it’s only served for poor people who can’t afford pure rice,” explains Nugraha, who is Javanese. The Javanese, Indonesia’s largest minority, have since built a culture around paddy agriculture.

In the past, eating pure rice was a privilege largely reserved for the royal family. But during Suharto’s rule, which lasted for more than three decades, rice became cheaper, making it more accessible to the Javanese.

Its popularity spread, and other ethnic minorities also adopted rice as their new staple food, neglecting traditional crops like maize, whose quality declined.

Weaning them off rice in the future, and encouraging them to try alternatives, will be tricky, experts say.


Hari Nugraha has health problems caused by high levels of uric acid, and has tried switching to a diet of brown rice which is higher in fibre and lower in sucrose. But because it is drier and less sweet, his children refused to eat it.

After a week, Nugraha’s family went back to white rice – and he doesn’t think they would be keen on sago rice either. “As an adult, I may be able to force myself to consume something healthier, but not my kids,” he said.

His experience suggest sago will only appear on Indonesian family menus if it really looks and tastes like paddy rice.

Existing varieties of sago may not yet fit the bill, but Thayieb and his colleagues have made some progress in refining sago rice to make it more palatable.

To reduce its stickiness, they have tried injecting wheat gluten, and to make it sweeter, they have added fructose. Thayieb has also tried adding high-protein morenga leaf powder to boost sago’s health benefits.  

If a palatable version can be produced, cost may be one big advantage for sago rice, as it sells for the rupiah equivalent of $0.13 per kilogramme compared with at least $0.44 for the cheapest rice.  

“Let (people) choose whether to buy expensive paddy rice or cheaper sago rice with a similar taste,” says Thayieb.

But unless the goverment backs the effort, he admits sago proponents face an uphill struggle.

“We need the government’s help to prepare the supply chain and campaign for it, so that sago rice will be popular,” he says.

Veby Mega Indah is a Jakarta-based freelance journalist who specializes in environmental and climate change issues. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.



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