A Starchy Palm Tree Extract May Be Indonesia’s Answer to Rice

Indonesia is betting on a natural starch extracted from tropical palm trees to cut 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 stems and used to prepare foods such as noodles, snacks and porridge-like meals. It’s 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% of the world’s sago trees grow in Indonesia.

A Starchy Palm Tree Extract May Be Indonesia’s Answer to Rice

The rapid spread of the coronavirus 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,” said Airlangga Hartarto, coordinating minister for economic affairs.

Indonesia usually imports rice when its own harvests are low and high domestic food prices fuel inflation. The agriculture ministry has set a target to produce 63.5 million tons of unhusked rice in 2021, up from an estimated production of 59.2 million tons 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 2020-24. The agriculture ministry is formulating guidelines for its cultivation and promoting research to develop good-quality seedlings.

Food Security

A Starchy Palm Tree Extract May Be Indonesia’s Answer to Rice

An increasing trend in rice consumption due to population growth in Indonesia in recent years has raised concerns over the country’s food security, according to a September report by the Food and Agriculture Organization.

“Sago starch consumption in Indonesia offers a significant opportunity to contribute to the elimination of food insecurity,” the FAO said.

Sago is best suited to emerge as an alternative to rice because of its higher yields. One hectare (2.5 acres) of sago plantation may produce as much as 40 tons of dry starch in a year, compared with the current average of about 5 tons of rice in an area the same size, according to the agriculture ministry.

The trunk of a sago tree is the most important part as it stores starch. It can grow 10 meters to 15 meters long and weigh more that a ton. 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.

A Starchy Palm Tree Extract May Be Indonesia’s Answer to Rice

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, total just 314,663 hectares. These estates produce about 465,000 tons 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 Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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