Indonesia looks to sorghum as wheat substitute as noodle lovers worry about price increase

East Nusa Tenggara will supply sorghum seeds to the entire Indonesia in 2023. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA - As Indonesians worry about a rise in the price of their favourite instant noodles, particularly as the Ukraine war already made wheat more expensive, the government looks into producing more sorghum as its substitute.

Chief economic minister Airlangga Hartarto recently revealed that the government is working on a multi-year programme to develop sorghum as an alternative to wheat.

A total of 4,355ha of this drought-resistant grain has been planted in six out of Indonesia's 34 provinces as at June, with an expected yield of about 15,200 tonnes.

The country aims to take this to 15,000ha this year, with a special focus on Waingapu regency in East Nusa Tenggara.

Sorghum was, in the 1970s, widely cultivated and consumed in East Nusa Tenggara, which gets low rainfall. But it was overtaken by rice over the next three decades as the Suharto administration promoted the crop as a staple food.

The province has cultivated 6,000ha of sorghum since 2020, and aims to add another 3,200ha this year, said East Nusa Tenggara's agriculture and food security agency chief Lucky Koli.

"All of the sorghum output this year will be dedicated for seeds. East Nusa Tenggara will supply sorghum seeds to the entire Indonesia in 2023," he told The Straits Times.

He added that sorghum will be cultivated for livestock feed in the future, too.

Indonesia is looking to alternative food grains after some wheat producers such as India and Kazakhstan halted wheat exports to meet their domestic needs, while the war in Ukraine disrupted supplies.

As a tropical country, Indonesia - home to more than 270 million people - cannot grow wheat, and imports more than 10 million tonnes of it annually.

But the popularity of wheat-based products, such as noodles, pasta and bread, is on the rise, thanks to the changing eating habits of its emerging middle class.

As the impact of the Ukraine war swept across the globe, Indonesians have been hit by rising inflation, which rose to a seven-year high of 4.94 per cent year on year in June.

Indonesia's demand for instant noodles amounted to 13.27 billion servings last year, second after China, which consumed 44.33 billion servings, according to the World Instant Noodles Association.

The price of Indomie – the most popular instant-noodle brand in Indonesia that has also made its way into more than 100 overseas markets – has risen at least 4 per cent since last year. A packet now costs 2,800 rupiah (25 Singapore cents).

Mr Fransiscus Welirang, director of its manufacturer Indofood, told Kompas TV that wheat flour comprises 20 per cent to 25 per cent of instant noodles' cost.

Indofood fully supports the government's effort to address the global food crisis by seeking alternative raw food materials locally like sorghum, Mr Fransiscus, who also chairs the Indonesian Wheat Flour Producers Association, said in a statement on Aug 12.

"The (Ministry) of Agriculture works on the cultivation, and we on the processing," he said.

In early August, Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo warned noodle lovers: "Those eating wheat-based noodles, be careful. Tomorrow, its price will triple."

This was refuted by Trade Minister Zulkifli Hasan, who said that the price of noodles may rise in line with the upward trend of the price of wheat, but not significantly.

Prices will also come down soon, due to harvests in a few producing nations, such as Australia and Canada, apart from Ukraine's export resumption, he added.

"The (wheat) price will likely decline in October," he said.

Dr Kasan Muhri, head of the Trade Analysis and Development Agency, told ST that the price of wheat in July fell 16.8 per cent to US$382.50 (S$531.86) per tonne from June. 

"It is predicted to continue declining until the end of 2022," he added.

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