Rice is not irreplaceable

The government should be aware that there is more than just one source of carbohydrate in the diet of Indonesians, activists said Wednesday.

Tini Sastra from NGO Solidaritas Perempuan (Women's Solidarity) said the government and the media had been focusing on rice as Indonesians' staple food for too long, despite the fact there are some people in regions that consume other sources of carbohydrate, such as corn and cassava.

"There is a tendency to portray food such as cassava and sago as food for the poor and malnourished, while people in certain regions actually eat these foods and are in fact healthy," she said.

She added that Soeharto's New Order regime had shaped the image of rice as a food for the priyayi or upper class, especially by giving rice subsidies to civil servants across the country, regardless of whether their staple food was rice.

Tini said that there had been a massive effort to enforce rice farming in various areas in Indonesia in the New Order era, as part of the "green revolution" - an agriculture method featuring the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to boost crop yield.

The prioritizing of rice over other carbohydrate sources is still prevalent now, despite talks of food diversification, she said.

The government would rather import rice than utilize available alternative crops, Tini added.

Last year, the government signed an extension of an MoU on rice imports from Vietnam despite forecasts of a rice surplus and a record national rice surplus in 2008 of 2.34 million tons.

Mustafa Abubakar, the then head of state-owned logistics company Bulog, said the MoU's extension served as a preventive measure.

In the same year, he said, Bulog distributed rice for the poor to 42 percent or 7.5 million of the 18.5 million poor people in Indonesia.

Tini cited 2008 data from the Central Statistics Agency, which showed that the country produced 32 million tons of rice, 19 million tons of corn and 13 million tons of cassava that year.

"This shows there are still many people who consume other types of food apart from rice," she said.

However, rice still triumphs with 60 percent of the population favoring it, Tini added.

Nutrition expert Soekirman said there was only minor disparity between rice and other staple food in terms of nutritional benefits, and hardly any between rice and corn.

"Rice and corn contain protein while other carbohydrate sources, such as sago, cassava and sweet potatoes, don't. But they are roughly equal as sources of energy and calories," he said.

Soekirman added that the ideal diet should include variety by diversifying staple food.

"It's good if people eat rice, cassava and other sources of carbohydrate alternatively," he said.

Bulog president director Sutarto Alimoeso said Bulog was open to the idea of staple foods other than rice being distributed across the country.

"Bulog acts based on orders, so if the government asks us to distribute rice for the poor, we distribute rice. If the government wishes to combine the food *with other staple foods*, then we do so accordingly," Sutarto told The Jakarta Post via telephone.

He added that currently, Bulog distributes rice even to regions where it is not a staple food.

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