Monday, 28 April 2014

The Missing Tempeh

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.  Prolonged drought in the US has increased the price of the commodity, affecting the local tempeh and tofu makers who rely on imported soybeans for the raw material.  You can be sure, once they start producing them again, the cost for these fried fermented soybean patties, the main staple of the Indonesian diet, will no longer be so humble.

The question of course, is why, given the country’s reliance on soybeans, Indonesia cannot grow and produce enough of it to feed her people and hence less dependent on imports and the vagaries of other country’s weather misfortunes?  The same thing goes with other staples such as rice and sugar. 

Of course, when growing and producing our own crops cost a lot more than importing them from other countries, it’s often easier and cheaper to just buy them, even at the expense of our farmers’ livelihood and, more importantly, at the expense of the country’s ability to develop the skills and technology to grow our own food.

It’s true that these days, with global trade, there is less need for a country to produce everything since you can always buy them from other countries the way they buy stuff from you.  However, when the depth of our globalisation and extent of our global interdependence is such that changing weather patterns in the US and India and consumer patterns in China have a direct effect on the basic food that we have on our dinner plate, then surely something is wrong.

While it’s good to be able to enjoy say, exotic fruits from other countries at a price that a household can afford, however, when it’s more expensive for us to buy locally grown fruit, say mangoes or bananas, than the same fruits imported from a long way abroad, then we have a problem.  Especially when some local indigenous fruits disappear off the shelves altogether to be replaced by foreign varieties because it’s easier and cheaper to get them than the ones from home.   

Moreover, it is ironic, as we always refer to Indonesia as our ‘tanah air’ (land-water).  And yet, here we are, acting as if we have neither of these things, preferring instead to focus on GDP growth and the health of our finance and consumer index as indicators of how well the country is doing, instead of focusing on the health of our land and water as our natural and sustainable capital.   

After all, what good is there in having a strong purchasing power if we don’t use it to better the quality of everyone’s life and the condition of the planet that we leave to future generations?  When we don’t invest it to promote research and innovation that can enrich the quality of our lands and the crops so our farmers can thrive and actually grow food for us now and for tomorrow’s children.  When we don’t invest in our water and our seas so that we can research ways on how to keep them clean and the fishes in abundance so that our fishermen can make a sustainable living out of them.  So that there is no longer any need for them to descend into the already congested cities to eke out a living as poor labourers, petty traders, menial workers or without employment.

While we cannot deny the importance and desirability of material growth - be it for comfort, welfare, security, convenience, status and momentary happiness - to pursue it as an end in itself, separate from our needs for social and environmental happiness, can only land us in trouble.  Already we are overwhelmed by the excesses of our materialism in the forms of mountains of waste, polluted air, scarce water, expensive energy use and cities that are unpleasant to live in as they are designed to accommodate buildings rather than 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 functional or nutritional use.  Actually, money is not a problem in this world.  Currently there is a lot of money around in the world.  However, it is mainly in the pockets of the few and used to generate more money and not to solve global problems.  If anything, 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 things in the most effective, productive and massive way, as if we own Mother Earth.  We might not have meant it, but our activities has left us with our resources depleted, our water and air polluted, our biodiversity diminishing, our industrial, consumer and toxic wastes damaging our health and the environment.

We have significantly impoverished the planet.  It is therefore, time to look at Nature not as a Resource to be exploited but as a Capital whose use comes with a cost and must be returned undamaged and with interest.


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