The militarist as milkman

Jun 1, 2024
A selective focus shot of complete milk bottling line in a factory

ABC TV’s Landline programme has declared that “Australia’s dairy industry is licking its lips at the prospect of increased demand from Indonesia.”

The cow cockies’ cliched hopes are based on the applauded pledge by Indonesia’s incoming president and former general Prabowo Subianto to give 83 million school kids free feeds and milk.

The salivators are also assuming locals can’t meet the huge extra demand.

Why should they? Till now there’s been no clamour and little wonder. Pearls & Irritations finds no joy in playing spoiler, but here’s an awkward fact:

Up to 90 per cent of Indonesians can’t drink milk because they’re lactose intolerant. Academic studies in Indonesia show users can get struck by RAP – recurrent abdominal pain – aka diarrhoea – something Prabowo and his team should have known.

The condition isn’t nation-specific. One report asserts it’s “a common disorder caused by a deficiency of the lactase (correct spelling) enzyme in the digestive system. Lactose intolerance is three times more common in South Asians than in other populations.”

Prabowo’s detail-free notion snitched from an Indian poll promise during the election campaign earlier this year, has now been costed at Rp 120 trillion – around $13 billion annually.

Costs will explode should the idea shift from promise to performance: collection, refrigeration, quality control, distribution and other essential factors have yet to be calibrated.

Some economists are concerned massive spending might be illegal by exceeding fiscal caps. Republic law prohibits the budget deficit from exceeding three per cent of the GDP – currently around Rp 5,288 trillion – $2,000 billion.

Then there’s KKN – Korupsi, Kolusi, Nepotisme – all terms borrowed from English.

A UN agency reports that “corruption remains a serious problem and overall, progress has been slow” blaming a “deeply embedded institutional culture of patronage.”

If local businesses and regional governments are to be involved in buying and distributing the freebies, the graft will be enormous without strong policing. This slanderous assessment is based on past performances of fraudulent administrations involved in big-scale projects that make Robodebt losses look like chook feed.

Could Australian farmers get into the market? They’ll need to be red-blooded investors aware of the graft dangers. Canberra says dairy is our third largest rural industry exporting about a third of the 8.8 billion litres generated, usually powder to make commercial products like pastries, lollies and other tempting sweetmeats.

Above all is the big threat from Aotearoa. Almost half of NZ’s dairy exports go to Indonesia. The trade name Anchor has become a synonym for butter wherever its found, in hotels and shops with fridges.

The Kiwis have marched through the mire since last century and are now well shod running Indonesia’s largest integrated dairy farm and milk processing factory.

A venture involving NZ and Indonesian investors, Greenfields started in 1997 by importing heavy-yield Holsteins and high-quality Jerseys from Western Australia into East Java.

Dairy farming is one of the toughest slogs in agriculture – seven days a week whatever the weather and personal mood, early rises, abundant muck and despite the alliterative aphorism about inseparability, not much money.

So little wonder few kids want to inherit their parents’ commitments to a business infamous for burnout, fickle prices and ruinous natural disasters.

Despite these miseries, the industry body Dairy Australia reports production will “grow slightly …. confidence in the Australian dairy industry is currently in its most stable period in a decade.”

If Prabowo’s vote-winning rhetoric is honest, the policy could make positive changes; it should help reduce living costs for the poor and cut the national curse of stunting.

About a quarter of Indonesia’s toddlers suffer because they aren’t breastfed and lack access to clean foods and decent toilets. They don’t grow properly and neither do their brains.

Wasting caused by non-nutritious meals affects more than 20 per cent of youngsters. The Australian rate is less than two per cent.

Older readers would remember lugging steel crates of half-pint bottles of warm milk into classes, a 1950’s government scheme for all kids to get enough calcium (and farmers to make quids), a policy borrowed from Britain and lasting for two decades.

One result is that Australians drink more than 300 litres a person every year. Indonesians consume 15 litres and no wonder. Apart from the inability to digest, the price is out of the average buyer’s range.

In villages and suburbs across the tropical archipelago, itinerants sell warming and sometimes diluted milk from a churn on a bike carrier. Where the thinner comes from is a worry – drinking tap water can lead to the runs.

The Indonesian industry is slowly modernising and driven by large-scale NZ farming businesses, but smallholders with a few cows in stalls remain major suppliers. Come dawn owners bike to roadsides to scythe sacks of grass and weeds to feed the barned beasts.

There’s a widespread government artificial insemination programme boosting herd quality and making owning bulls and imported stock unnecessary. It started last century because the second president Soeharto liked bovines.

Milk goes to local depots where it is strained, tested, cooled and packed in one-litre plastic bags that wholesale for less than one Oz dollar.

The big factories make the so-called long-life product using ultra-high temperature technology and retailed in cartons for double to triple the price.

For an insight into a nation’s culinary culture check shop shelves. Australian supermarkets give ample space to milk and bread, products hard to find in Indonesian supermarkets and rarely in the open public markets where rice, noodles and veggies dominate.

Will the Prabowo plan make a difference? If the school brekkies are really free, consistent and nutritious – yes.

If milk is included megalitres will go down the gurgler. So will General Prabowo’s self-proclaimed reputation as a social problem fixer without using firearms.

Dug deeper into the political psyche than Australian fears of an Asian invasion is Indonesia’s desperation to achieve food self-sufficiency by 2026.

Reliance on Imports threatens national security and shames a nation so rich in soils and water – though management inefficiencies abound.

Australia’s dairy farmers might want to take a good draught of the white stuff before ordering their next Merc on the basis of new Indonesian demand.

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