The ubiquitous tempeh that accompanies every Indonesian meal has been rather elusive lately, as tempeh-makers around the country have stopped production in the last few days to protest the rising price of soybeans. Drought in the United States has increased the price, affecting local tempeh and tofu makers who rely on imported soybeans for the raw material. Once they start producing them again, the cost of these fried fermented patties, the main staple of the Indonesian diet, will no longer be humble.
Why, given the country’s reliance on soybeans, can’t Indonesia grow and produce enough of them to feed its people and depend less on imports and other countries’ weather misfortunes? The same thing goes with rice and sugar.
When growing and producing our own crops costs more than importing them, it’s often easier to just buy them. This comes at the expense of our farmers’ livelihoods and our ability to develop the skills and technology to grow our own food.
There is less need these days for a country to produce everything because it can always import them from other countries. However, if our global dependence is such that changing weather patterns in the United States and India, and consumer patterns in China, have a direct effect on the basics we have on our dinner plate, then surely something is wrong.
It’s nice to enjoy exotic fruit from other countries but when locally-grown food is more expensive than the same imported fruit, we have a problem; especially when the local fruit is replaced by foreign fruit because it’s cheaper and easier to get.
It’s ironic that we refer to Indonesia as our “tanah air” (land-water), yet we act as if we have neither of these things. We focus on GDP growth and the health of our finance and consumer index indicators. Why aren’t we focusing on the health of our land and water as our natural and sustainable capital?
What good is there in having strong purchasing power if we don’t use it to improve our quality of life and the condition of the planet? Why don’t we promote research and innovation that can enrich our lands and crops so our farmers can actually grow food for us and tomorrow’s children? Why don’t we invest in our seas so that we can find ways to keep them clean and the fish in abundance? The nation’s fishermen should be doing their jobs, not coming into our congested cities to eke out a living as laborers, traders, menial workers or without employment.
We can’t deny the importance and desirability of material growth — be it for comfort, welfare, security, convenience and momentary happiness — to pursue it as an end in itself, but to separate it from our needs for social and environmental happiness, we can only get in trouble. We are already overwhelmed by the excesses of our materialism in the forms of waste, polluted air, scarce clean water, expensive energy and cities that are designed to accommodate buildings instead of people.
Money might enable us to buy tempeh, but when tempeh is no longer available because the soybeans can no longer be grown, then it has no function. Money is not a problem in this world. There is a lot of it around in the world. However, it is mainly in the pockets of the few, and used to generate more instead of solving global problems. Poverty is increasing with 2.5 billion people living under $2 a day in a world becoming more vulnerable to climate and environmental upheavals.
And still we continue living in an Industrial Age-vacuum that reduces the meaning of life to one of making, using and throwing away things in the most effective, productive and massive way. We might not have meant it, but our activities left us with our resources depleted, our water and air polluted, our biodiversity diminishing, and our industrial, consumer and toxic waste damaging our health and the environment.
We have impoverished the planet so it’s time to look at nature as capital whose use comes at a price, and must be returned with interest.
Desi Anwar is a senior anchor at Metro TV. She can be contacted at desianwar.com and dailyavocado.net.