Growing rice as an intercrop in oil palm estates to secure food security

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Illustration of rice and palm fruit commodities. Illustration by: Palmoilmagazine.com

PALMOILMAGAZINE, JAKARTA – The climate change has been significantly impacting the rice cultivation pattern. Worse, the El Nino phenomenon causing a prolonged dry season has forced the farmers to delay planting last year. Such natural occurrences have not only delayed the annual rice harvest but also decreased rice production in Indonesia by 1.4 percent.

The government has so far resorted mostly to an adhoc measure to address the rice deficit and to prevent domestic rice prices from rising steeply but at the expense of the farmers.  Indonesia last year imported around 3.3 million tons of rice and has issued licenses for importing another 3.6 million tons this year.

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Such a contingency program is justified in view of the role of rice as the main staple food for Indonesia’s 270 million people and the high weight of this commodity in the consumer price index (inflation). The increase in rice prices and the scarcity of rice stocks  over the last few weeks are indeed worrisome, especially as we approach the annual celebrations of Ramadan and Eid, where there are usually a simultaneous rises in prices of several food items.

But such an adhoc measure is not sustainable in the long term. Still worse, big import makes us vulnerable  to the volatile rice prices in the international market, especially because there are only a few rice exporters in the world, notably Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar.

Hence, the most effective way to achieve sustainable rice self-sufficiency is increasing domestic rice production. The problem is that paddy fields in Java, which account for more than 55 percent of the national rice output, have steadily decreased due to the high pace of industrialization.

The 2023 agricultural census found that over the last ten years, th number of individual agricultural holdings, simply called farmers, declined by 2.36 million units (7.45 percent), from 31.71 million units in 2013 to 29.34 million units in 2023. If this trend continues, it will be a serious threat to our future food security.

The census also discovered a significant increase in the proportion of agricultural households managing less than 0.2 ha of agricultural land in the last ten years. As a consequence, the number of agricultural households with limited access to land sharply increased by 2.64 million households (18.54 percent) from 14.25 million households in 2013 to around 16.89 million households in 2023. It means about 61 percent of the agricultural households in Indonesia only manage less than 0.5 hectares of land. 0n Java Island which is the heart of our food production, the proportion is even worse reaching more than 80 percent.

Therefore, paddy field expansion is feasible mostly outside Java. notably in Sumatra, Sulawesi and Kalimantan.

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In this context, we see a big opportunity for paddy field expansion which will be created by the recent government decision to increase the replanting of smallholders’ oil estates to 250,000 hectares a year and to double replanting fund from the state-owned Oil Palm Estate Fund (BPDPKS) to Rp 60 million (US$3,800)  per ha. Rain-fed paddy can be cultivated as an intercrop in the replanted oil palm plantations.

Yet more encouraging is that the decision adopted at a limited Cabinet session chaired by President Joko Widodo on Feb.27 to streamline the bureaucratic procedures for the disbursement of replanting funds by BPDPKS for smallholders who account for around 40 percent or 6.6 million of the total 16.5 million ha of oil palm plantations across the country, notably in Sumatra, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Papua.

Regulatory and bureaucratic barriers have so far hindered the replanting program to achieve its acreage target. The government itself has acknowledged that the BPDPKS-funded replanting program has thus far achieved only 30 percent of its target.

The new policy will generate multiplier impacts on our food security. The replanting of smallholders’ oil palm estates with high-yield seedlings not only will boost the production of palm oil, currently our second largest export commodity, and the main source of our cooking oil, soap, biofuel and numerous other consumer goods.

It is noted that the areas for either replanting or new development of smallholders’ oil palm estates are also suitable for rain-fed paddy cultivation through intercropping cultivation. Intercropping, a term for the agronomic practice of cultivating two or more crops simultaneously, of rain-fed paddy cultivation in rows between oil palm seedlings.

Our preliminary calculation shows that at least during the first two year period from replanting until the oil palm’s canopies are fully closed. The scheme is aimed at optimally use the available land for rain-fed paddy cultivation, thereby providing adequate food supplies and generating additional income for the farmers while they wait for their oil palm trees to begin producing fresh fruit bunches (usually after four years) because paddy can be harvested after five to six months.

The beauty of such a program is that farmers outside Java have been accustomed to rain-fed paddy cultivation. And with the support of the replanting fund from the BPDPKS and farming guidance from agricultural extension service workers, we are confident that the paddy intercrop will grow well to supply the smallholders with enough food and help contribute to food security locally and nationally. Other food crops such as horticulture also can be cultivated as intercrops to provide the farmers with a wide variety of nutrients.

With right intervention, palm oil smallholders with the government support can transform from the subsistence farmers into modern prosperous farmers with a sustained incomed inflow at higher household income rate without interruption.

The oil palm replanting program can even be further accelerated in cooperation with big palm oil companies which have so far provided oil palm smallholders with financial, technical, refining and marketing assistance under the nucleus estate and smallholder partnership program (NES). Such private-public partnership scheme will further uplift smallholders’ yield to be on par with the company’s average and bolster the national palm oil production.

The Indonesian palm oil companies support the new government’s program and initiative on food security, notably increased rice production through intercropping of rain-fed paddy in replanting oil palm estates. However, taking into account the need for specific technical competency and experience in rice cultivation, it is imperative to have full government’s support in provisions of seeds, training and extension services and all related farming management aspects to ensure the success of this intercropping scheme.

By: Eddy Martono

Chairman of the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (Gapki). The views expressed are personal.

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