What goes up but never comes down?
This is the riddle in the current situation with prices of goods and services and essentials on the rise driven by the surging fuel price.
As we wait for interventions and expect the price to fall, the next concern is about shortages.
With production of essential cereals like wheat hampered by climatic conditions and supply chain disruptions amid the war in Ukraine, there are warnings that wheat will be in short supply.
India banned the export of wheat last week, with some exceptions, to manage its food security. Fortunately, Bhutanese diet is not dependent on wheat. If it was rice, we would have been in trouble.
We do not produce much wheat, or consume it. The total production of wheat in the country was 1,623 metric tonnes in 2020, according to AASS (annual agriculture sample survey). Import too is insignificant, about 500 to 6000 MT annually.
Apart from the occasional kapchi (flour made from roasted wheat) for breakfast or in-between meals, wheat is used mostly to brew alcohol or is used as a feed.
However, with experts, including the World Food Programme’s chief economist warning of a global food insecurity, we should be concerned even if we can weather the wheat shortage. Experts are saying people in low-income and developing countries will bear the brunt of a food crisis resulting from man-made conflicts, climate shocks, the Covid pandemic and rising costs.
The repercussions are already being felt. There are many who are readjusting their lifestyle, cutting costs, and making sacrifices.
There are uncertainties and as an import dependent country, we should heed to the warnings.
Bhutan is an agricultural country, as many of us grew up learning. It is still the sector that employs the most, yet we couldn’t generate a renewed interest in agriculture. There are a lot of initiatives to increase production and attract people back to the farms. More can and should be done.
Not long ago, at this time of the year, farmers in the Punakha-Wangdue valley would be harvesting wheat. They would have stacked the mustard green harvest or turned them into oil and the remnants into cattle feed. The organic cooking oil would last a year. Today, most fields are empty. Some will be tilled for paddy cultivation soon and some will remain fallow as shortage of hands, cost of labour and the availability of cheap imported rice makes farming unattractive or expensive.
Young people move out to towns in search of odd jobs, while it is difficult to turn back the unemployed to the farms. The old and dependents left behind cannot take charge of the farms. If there is a global food crisis and when groceries run out of food supplies or become too expensive, we will rue the opportunities missed in the agriculture sector.
The next shortage could be rice. Rice was the third most imported commodity in 2020, worth Nu 2.63 billion.