Nutmeg Tiptoes a Delicate Road to European Spice Jars

Juan Calsa, the program manager for economic and trade of the EU Delegation to Indonesia, speaks to a Manado nutmeg farmer. (Photo courtesy of the EU Delegation to Indonesia)

By : Emmy Fitri | on 2:20 PM July 06, 2013
Category : Life & Style

Members of the Maramis family and their neighbors in the hinterland of North Sulawesi may not have ever seen Rotterdam or Livorno, but their tedious work has made nutmeg a staple in many European households and a valuable contributor to the Indonesian economy.

The spice, native to some of Indonesia’s islands, accounts for an astonishing 75 percent of the world spice market with an average of 12,000 tons in global production every year. Indonesian nutmeg is grown in North Sulawesi, Maluku and North Maluku.

Frederik Maramis, the eldest Maramis, says the spice has been an integral member of his family. Nutmeg sales supported two of his children’s education through post-graduate degrees and the supplies for a custom-built home.

Like most farmers in the area, he learned how to harvest the freshly picked kernels from a young age. He said it his parents’ most precious legacy.

“My family has lived on the nutmeg trees dating back to my great grandparents, maybe. I learned everything just by growing up surrounded by my parents and neighbors taking care of the trees, harvesting and handling the nutmeg kernels,” Frederik, now in his early 60s, said.

At Frederik’s family house, the freshly picked seeds are cracked from their shells then dried under the sun. If the weather is not favorable, the family uses a simple smoke dryer in the backyard.

While the kernels and mace are primarily exported, home industries make use of the fruit meat for traditional delicacies such as sweetened nutmeg and syrup.

Indonesia is the most significant supplier of nutmeg to the European Union market, providing 80 percent of its total imports with an annual value of around 30 million euros ($39 million).

But in late 2011, the European Union tightened controls on foods entering its market after some imports were contaminated with carcinogenic alfatoxins. The restrictions served as a wake-up call for the Maramis and other nutmeg farmers who made a living through exports.

In view of the number of violations and the high volume of imports of Indonesian nutmeg, the European Union in March 2012 conducted an audit on control systems in place in Indonesia aimed at preventing another aflatoxin contamination.

“There are many reasons the aflatoxin can grow during the substandard storage or shipment. We cannot rapidly change the situation. But despite a decrease in volume in 2011 and 2012, the value remains stable,” said Andreas Rottger, EU head of regional and economic cooperation.

Rottger was in North Sulawesi last week to hold discussions with farmers, collectors and exporters as part of a joint attempt to improve the quality of cash crops in the province.

In a bid to build better quality control systems in Indonesia, the European Union has made use of the ongoing EU-Indonesia Trade Support Program II.

The five-year, 15-million-euro initiative aims to improve the quality of Indonesian exports and their compliance with international standards, with nutmeg one of many commodities covered by the program. The scheme brings together Indonesia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Trade and nutmeg farming associations.

“This [program] is not only about export purposes, as we hope this can inspire others [farmers with different commodities],” Rottger said.

EuroStat 2013 shows that in the past two decades, EU-Indonesia trade has grown significantly, with a current value of 23 billion euros. Indonesia enjoys a trade surplus of around 5.7 billion euros.

However, Aditya Nugroho, team leader of TSP II, cited the challenges faced by the program.

“Our national standard, or SNI [Standar Nasional Indonesia], for instance, does not comply to international standards. It does not mention anything about an aflatoxin limit or how commodities should be handled to prevent fungi growth,” he said.

Erna Riyanti Wardhani from the Ministry of Agriculture said the SNI should have been revised a long time ago.

“The SNI is a product of the 1980s and it should be revisited regularly. As it goes beyond the ministry’s authority, what we can do is to push for an SNI review and revision. In the meantime, we educate the farmers, collectors and exporters to improve their products’ quality,” she said.

Indonesia is only trailed by India in the global market. Grenada was once a strong competitor but the island state suffered a serious setback when a 1955 hurricane blew down 90 percent of the trees.

The aflatoxin notifications caused producers like Sherly Dendeng to implement better controls. In her warehouse in Manado, North Sulawesi, dry kernels are sorted three times to ensure best quality.

“In the past the sorted kernels were directly shipped but now ... we bring our products to an independent laboratory in Surabaya [East Java] for aflatoxin testing before shipping,” she explained. “When the containers arrive in European ports, they will be checked again.”

Despite these precautions, Sherly said she still worries about the toxin.

“Every time I ship containers, I can’t help but feel nervous because although we have already improved the steps [with which] we handle the kernels, fungi can still grow during shipment,” she added.

Despite this, Frederik hopes future generations of his family will continue the Maramis tradition. For him, the spice is more than just a way to earn a livelihood.

“Nutmeg is my life,” he said.

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