Haven’t been here for a while… perhaps because I have been under with dissertation fever!
But now I / we have been tasked with writing a bit about sustainable production and consumption. To be honest, I don’t want to get all ‘researchy and academicky’ but I think one of the most powerful sustainable production and consumption stories is actually a very simple one – under the topic of local food systems, and specifically that of tempe (sometimes spelled ‘tempeh’) production in Java, Indonesia. As I write this, I am actually in West Java, driving to a customer site, and on my left and right are rice fields and soybean fields, the soybean fields being related to this blog’s topic.
Tempe is basically a fermented soybean product, usually made in cake-like or block-shaped form, sliceable like cheese, and used in hundreds of dishes – fried, deep-fried, boiled, sautéed, baked, you name it. It is sold throughout Indonesia, but my point of reference is in central Java. Some perspective first of all: the total population of Java is about 145 million people, crammed onto an island half the size (128,000 square km.) of the American state of Oregon (252,000 square km.)! Of this total population, I am sure 99% of the people eat tempe at least occasionally, and most probably eat it every few days or so. I proudly admit I am one of those 145 million people. Tempe is a key, staple food ingredient, and completely vegetarian, literally feeding the world’s 4th most populated nation.
I have a friend who is a small time farmer in central Java, Arif is his name. Besides farming, he supplements his income with a home tempe production business with his wife. I see this as a simple example of sustainable production and consumption, because the footprint is so minimal. He grows the soybeans, his wife prepares them with a fermentation culture bacillus called ‘ragi’ locally, and after a few days, voila, one has tempe. Packaging is also totally organic – they wrap each tempe ‘cake’ in teak leaves while fermenting, and this imparts a unique flavor – sort of like the terroir concept in winemaking. Normally, tempe is sold wrapped in banana leaves, and when cooked the flavor is different from being wrapped in teak leaves.
Now, this simple process is multiplied hundreds of thousands of times over on a daily basis in Java by families and/or small cottage businesses, and all of Indonesia actually, but the total footprint – soybeans, ‘ragi,’ some water for mixing, is minimal. This is pretty much already scaled as well, so scaled in fact, that it has become part of the culture and behavior of Indonesia / Indonesians. There is no corporate or industrial size involvement here – just simple, clean, inexpensive production that delivers a powerful and tasty protein punch – without the inherent and messy problems of large scale meat production, for example! I know the answers to the problems of sustainability are complex and require systems thinking on the large scale, but often times one comes across a simple scenario that makes a meaningful contribution to sustainability, even though that was never its original intent. There is an elegance to that.