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A global food crisis calls for soil resilience

How Bali is creating food security and more environmentally friendly rice production at the same time.

Hand holding rice grasses

Balinese rice cultivation is remarkable worldwide for its efficient irrigation management. Image courtesy of Astungkara Way.

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As I approach my fifth year working in Bali as an environmental journalist, I’ve encountered a diverse range of people who put their hearts and souls into leaving this island a bit better. From bird conservators to botanical dyers, Bali has a wealth of communities that strive to give back.

One issue in the food and climate space — calling for our attention during this time is the ground we walk (and build) on. As a good farmer friend of mine puts it — in the future we can either eat or not eat.

Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands with fertile soil and rich mega-biodiversity, two aspects that support robust production of local foods and in turn contribute to food security. 

Blessed with such a natural wonder, farmers have been able to grow 77 types of carbohydrate-resource food plants, 389 types of fruits, 77 types of protein-resources and 228 types of vegetables. But as the food system becomes more westernized, we could see these numbers slashed unless a more mindful system takes its place.

One of the most pressing problems facing agricultural interests in Bali today is the rapid conversion of productive agricultural land to non-agricultural uses. Effectively, soil erosion happens when construction disrupts vegetation, ultimately leading to soil infertility.

As a renowned holiday destination and prominent property investment choice, Bali — and its soil health — has yet to witness a break from construction.

Earlier this year, developers saw an increase in domestic and foreign interest in longer-stay properties. Construction of villas has already skyrocketed, with interest also turning to self-contained, long-term accommodations in lieu of hotels thanks to foreigners choosing to spend lockdown and work from Bali.

The rapid conversion from arable land to non-agricultural land also poses a threat to the Balinese rice culture. Reportedly, every year, up to 2,500 acres of rice fields are converted into housing estates, roads, hotels, shopping areas and other facilities. 

Balinese rice cultivation is remarkable worldwide for its efficient irrigation management. It’s the backbone of the paddy cultivation system but has also acted as a socio-religious community dating back to the ninth century. Subak, the age-old irrigation system, has been subject to modern adjustments to boost agricultural production in the past. In addition to losing highly productive land to excessive construction, one of the most profound shocks to the subak system is the new high-yielding rice varieties that are hugely dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Bali’s cultivated land is prone to soil degradation but farmers and governments are not quick to recognize and address the problem — and the source.

High demand comes with a high price

Just last month, Indonesia celebrated three years of autonomy from rice imports, paving the way for rice self-sufficiency and as a major exporter.

As the world’s third-largest producer of the grain, rice production is an engine of economic growth. Several countries are already looking to the world’s largest archipelago to alleviate their own rice shortages — a result of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ever-increasing impacts of the climate crisis on production.

The national rice production reached 55.27 million tons in 2021 alone, when, according to the Agriculture Ministry, the country imported up to 2 million tons of rice before 2019 to meet the needs of domestic rice.

Indonesia is set to export rice to China, Brunei and Saudi Arabia. Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo said in July that Indonesia must seize the opportunity to export rice; that the nation could become one of the countries to benefit from the windfall profit from commodity exports.

With the world’s food production responsible for 31 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, pushing rice production at a rapid pace will comes with repercussions for the planet.

There is still a lack of robust data on GHG emissions from Indonesia’s rice fields that produced the almost 56 million tons last year. But to put into perspective, global rice farming can do as much harm as 1,200 average-sized coal power stations, according to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). 

Astungkara Way acts as a social enterprise or a business with specific social objectives to serve its primary purpose helps farmers transition to regenerative agriculture.

Farmers in Indonesia also still lack the incentive to adopt more sustainable practices due to a traditional belief that any agricultural problem could be solved with chemicals. And newer rice varieties require pesticides and fertilizers to boost production.

With a global food crisis looming, we may need to consider the long-term effects of our "old ways" sooner rather than later, and for us to better realize the growing carbon footprint caused across global supply chains.

From the ground up

Many of us fail to see how leaving our soil to deteriorate diminishes our capacity to feed the world with healthy food. Promoting soil health works as a long-term solution to the long-term adverse impact of modern agriculture.

The go-to farming practices, such as excessive fertilizing and tilling, can be counter-productive to the productivity of soils in some cases. One study (PDF) reported that fertilization affects soil nutrient content and crop yield by affecting the ability of crops to absorb and distribute elements. Protecting our soil is beneficial to both quantity and quality of crops.

Regeneration aims to restore soil and sequester carbon, while reinforcing the food supply chain. It looks to redefine our relationship with the soil. As with anything else, the first step may be the hardest.

Astungkara Way has been ahead of the curve in Bali since the pandemic-stricken summer of 2020. The community acts as a social enterprise or a business with specific social objectives. Its primary purpose helps farmers transition to regenerative agriculture; and to work with people and organizations to create a roadmap and implement solutions for becoming active contributors to the growing regenerative movement.

"If we’re going to go forward as a species, we need to find a new way; less consumer-driven, less fast and more connected to each other and nature," founder Tim Fijal explained.

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Healthy Rice is one of its initiatives to incentivize farmers to face challenges, such as overcoming initial costs. Establishing a stable market for naturally farmed rice, the organization believes, will catalyze a movement away from farming with chemical inputs.

They are working to revive 15 acres of land in a village in Gianyar, near central Bali, by creating a market for 3 tons of naturally farmed rice per month. This initiative will engage farmers in the Subak Uma Lambing cooperative to inspire others to join the movement. The farmers at Subak Uma Lambing have started growing rice in sustainable ways, sans chemicals, ensuring people are fed with nourishing food and farmers are appreciated and paid fairly for their hard work.

Beras Sehat (Healthy Rice) has saturated Bali’s hospitality market, with big names such as Potato Head Beach Club purchasing hundreds of kilos a month, along with smaller businesses around the island also actively supporting the movement. 

"Another big driver of our market is charities feeding hungry people in Bali," Fijal said.

Prasad, a kitchen run out of a community garden called Jiwa, and Green School Bali receive donations of food from Astungkara Way to feed people in need. Volunteers cook and prepare hundreds of nasi bungkus (Indonesian rice meals wrapped in banana leaves) to be distributed weekly at the community-run kitchen. Plans of expanding to more locations are underway.

"Donors at Prasad also buy our rice at a pretty significant volume," said Fijal. "I think we sell upwards of 800 kg/month that ends up going to charities like Prasad, Bali Street Mums, and a couple of others."

Astungkara Way supplies about 2 tons of Healthy Rice per month. "We’d love to see that number increase by a factor of 10 or more. The more rice we can sell, the more we can expand the regenerative footprint on Bali," he said.

Astungkara Way is working to turn sustainable agriculture into a compelling alternative to tourism as Bali's main industry.

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