Indonesia is betting on a natural starch extracted from tropical palm trees to reduce its dependence on rice and ensure food security in the world’s fourth most-populous nation.
Commonly known as sago, the starch is found in the spongy part of palm tree stems and is used to prepare foods such as noodles, snacks and porridge-like meals. It is seen as a healthier alternative to rice because of its lower glycemic index — a measure of how fast carbohydrates affect blood glucose levels in the body.
About 84 percent of the world’s sago trees grow in Indonesia.
The rapid spread of COVID-19 across the globe has prompted the government to focus on the potential of sago at a time when Indonesia’s paddy fields are shrinking. The Southeast Asian nation wants to use all its available resources to become self-sufficient, with its population forecast to grow to 300 million by 2025.
“The pandemic has made us realize that nothing is more important than food security,” Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Airlangga Hartarto said.
Indonesia usually imports rice when its own harvests are low and high domestic food prices fuel inflation.
The Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture has set a target to produce 57.6 million tonnes of unhusked rice next year, up from an estimated production of 53.7 million tonnes this year.
The government is planning to allow people to choose sago instead of rice in a food aid program for the poor. It aims to develop 400 hectares of sago plantations every year as part of its mid-term national program for this year through 2024.
The ministry is formulating guidelines for its cultivation and promoting research to develop good-quality seedlings.
An increasing trend in rice consumption due to population growth in Indonesia in the past few years has raised concerns about the country’s food security, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said in a report released in September last year.
“Sago starch consumption in Indonesia offers a significant opportunity to contribute to the elimination of food insecurity,” the organization said.
Sago is best suited to emerge as an alternative to rice because of its higher yields. One hectare of sago plantations could produce as much as 36.3 tonnes of dry starch in a year, compared with the current average of about 4.5 tonnes of rice in an area the same size, the ministry said.
The trunk of a sago tree is the most important part as it stores starch. It can grow 10m to 15m long and weigh more than a tonne.
The trunks are cut in several pieces, grated or crushed, and then soaked with water to prepare a starch solution, which is cleaned and dried to make sago flour.
Wild sago trees grow in about 5.4 million hectares of land in Indonesia, with most trees located in Papua island.
The area under sago plantations, managed mainly by household farmers, totals just 314,663 hectares. These estates produce about 421,840 tonnes of sago starch.
A lot of work is needed to be done, including promoting sago as an alternative to rice, as almost everyone is eating rice right now, said Musdhalifah Machmud, deputy minister for food and agriculture at the Indonesian Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs.
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