This article was originally published on Sixdegrees.

Why do we need to look at suboptimal lands?

Indonesia’s population has increased by 32.56 million people over a decade with an average population growth rate of 3.26% per year. The increasing human population creates a predicament regarding the availability of land because the existing lands must be utilized for the increasing housing needs. Meanwhile, lands are also vital for food needs and agricultural development.

Indonesia is experiencing a speed loss of agricultural land around 140,000 – 187,000 hectares per year, due to the increase in residential and industrial areas. The gap between food demand, food production, and land availability need to be resolved.

There is a hope to create new agricultural lands from such areas which people rarely glimpse, namely the suboptimal land. Suboptimal land, often known as marginal land or idle land, is low-quality land that lacks economic value and refers to land that is not used due to poor natural conditions, but is capable of producing crops, including agricultural production.

Characteristics of suboptimal land and its potential

Suboptimal land is rarely used as land for agriculture because it is considered to have low productivity – it is often infertile, marginal, low potential, poor in resources, degraded and difficult to cultivate for productive agricultural land.

However, limited and decreasing fertile land forces us to develop innovations in meeting future food needs by utilizing suboptimal land. Around 157.2 million ha of land in Indonesia is suboptimal, consisting of 123.1 million ha of dry land and 34.1 million ha of wetlands, including peatlands.

Suboptimal land can contribute to improving the state of food security and increasing agricultural productivity.

The sustainable use of abandoned or degraded land can be a solution to secure food supplies. This is because the harvest produced on suboptimal land will increase the availability and accessibility of food, especially for the surrounding area.

The answer to local and global food security

Imagine if population growth is not balanced with an increase in food supply due to limited land availability. A country with too much dependence on imports to meet its food needs might disrupt its stability.

The solution to this problem is by utilizing suboptimal land. Suboptimal land can strengthen the construction of local food barns – which can overcome three main issues: inequality in food production centers, long and ineffective food distribution, and farmers’ welfare. In addition, local food barns can meet food security in an unexpected disaster such as the current pandemic.

Strengthening the use of these marginal lands which are accessible to locals to produce food commodity production can increase the availability, consumption, and sales of food commodities and help improve community nutrition.

To maintain food security by making use of suboptimal land, we can apply “think globally, act locally” to picture broadly and take action locally adapted to regional conditions.

Thinking globally is important when the market cannot adequately serve the (global) community’s food needs due to the interruption of physical access caused by disaster or disruption of economic access due to price spikes, or like during this pandemic. Then, we can take action locally by increasing local food productivity by utilizing suboptimal land used as gardens or fields as an alternative that is always ready to be harvested.

Turning suboptimal land into food productive

Several studies have identified effective ways to convert suboptimal land into productive lands, such as the suitability of wetlands for growing chilies and rubber corn intercropping. At the same time, agriculture on dry land is suitable for rainfed crops that depend on rainfall.

In Indonesia, suboptimal peatlands have been a source of food and livelihood for generations.

Agriculture on suboptimal land can be done well by paying attention to suitable soil characteristics, effective water management, and appropriate planting methods to optimally produce various commodities, including secondary crops, vegetables, and fruits.

With the support of knowledge and technology, we can experiment on which method is the most effective for regulating the land. We can combine traditional techniques and modern technology in overcoming agricultural constraints on suboptimal land.

Sustainable use of suboptimal land for food security

The success of suboptimal land in agricultural development can be seen in farm practices in South Sumatra Province. Around 15% or 1.4 million ha of land in South Sumatra Province are dominated by swamp and peatland, and 89.7% of the wetlands are plant rice, accounting for 73.7% of the total harvested area. Wetland cultivation has contributed to local food security by delivering the expected results and sustainability.

As an alternative to economic revitalization and meeting the community’s food needs, farmers in South Sumatra also use peatlands to cultivate secondary crops and horticulture such as rice, corn, cassava, beans, and various other vegetables. Plantation practices on peatlands are carried out in an environmentally friendly and sustainable manner.

Therefore, the suboptimal land has potency significant to be used as a strategic choice for developing agricultural production areas in the future and as a source of supporting national food security. Especially to compensate for the shrinking of arable land and increased production for food security and agribusiness development.

Turning suboptimal land into fertile land does not mean compromising other ecosystems. Further and continuous analysis is needed to identify what kind of agricultural practices are sustainable, taking humans and the environment into account.

Feny Nuroktaviani is a student at the University of Al Azhar, Indonesia. This submission is part of her internship programme at the Tay Juhana Foundation