The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
Tempeh and tofu would not have disappeared from the family dining room, as it did this week, if the country's government had listened to Indonesia's scientists.
The archipelago would have been able to stop importing soybeans from the U.S. and would probably even be exporting a high-yield protein-rich bean to other countries.
"Perhaps we didn't have the time to pay attention to soybeans then," said Endang Sukara, deputy chairman of the natural sciences department of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).
But in 2004 and after successfully breeding "newly improved" soybeans, LIPI scientists invited then-President Megawati and her agriculture officials to see their high-yield harvest in South Sumatra.
Endang wasn't joking when he said the soybeans had added value.
Kedelai Plus, the new improved variety, was able to produce up to three times the yield compared to regular soybeans and required less than half the amount of fertilizer.
"We told the government all about it, and they were there during the harvesting at Musi Rawas in South Sumatra," Endang said at LIPI's Center for Biotechnology Research in Cibinong, West Java.
"But they never followed it up."
To create Kedelai Plus, a team of scientists, led by Harmastini Sukiman, isolated hundreds of Rhizobiums, a microbe that binds Nitrogen from the ground for soybean roots to absorb.
They then discovered one special string called Rhizobium B64.
"The strain worked really well for soybeans by boosting productivity and improving the plants' resistance to diseases," Harmastini said.
"Soybean plants produce more beans using B64."
The scientists grew Kedelai Plus in many areas across Indonesia, including South Sumatra, North Sumatra, West Java and East Java, with outstanding results.
Farmers in Indonesia can produce on average up to 1.2 tons of soybeans per hectare, but in every harvest Kedelai Plus was yielding 2.4 to 4.5 tons per hectare.
The team discovered a way to inject the microbe into the soybean, which meant farmers no longer had to glue the microbe onto the bean skin, or sprinkle it across the soil.
"Rhizobiums grow abundantly in the soil, so for Rhizobium B64 to survive the competition, we must make sure there are enough B64 cells for the soybean roots to absorb," Harmastini said.
With the help of a special vacuuming machine, LIPI was able to turn any type of soybean variety into Kedelai Plus with similar results.
Endang said he was confident the new technology would see Indonesia end its dependency on expensive, imported American soybeans.
"All the government needs to do now is up-scale the machine and produce Kedelai Plus in various seed centers so that farmers can purchase them at affordable prices," he said.
Endang said he has been dreaming of a day when he could drink soybean milk, snack on soybean yogurt and have a tempeh burger for lunch, all made from domestic soybeans.
But for the time being, farmers wishing to plant "newly improved" soybeans can bring their own seeds to LIPI in Cibinong to be injected with Rhizobium B64 at a cost of Rp 50,000 (US$ 5.30) for 20 kilograms of soybean seed. (lva)