Choki Wangmo

The National Assembly yesterday saw a long-winded discussion on agricultural products marketing and related issues.

Despite rising interest in agriculture in recent days because of the Covid-19 pandemic, several MPs raised concerns about the availability of the market and sustainability of the activities.

Opposition Leader (OL) Pema Gyamtsho (PhD) said availability of agricultural market was not a problem. “It is not that Bhutan does not have market for agricultural products. The country lacks economies of scale, quality products throughout the season and fair price.”

This, he said, was the main problem with Bhutan’s agriculture. The country does not produce quality products for export.

Stressing on the importance of food self-sufficiency, he said that Covid-19 brought opportunities for Bhutanese farmers. Risk-taking, he said, was important to optimise production.

“This would be the best time to focus on agriculture because there is government support and people are showing interest in production. We would be able to meet the domestic demand and also produce enough for export,” Pema Gyamtsho said.

Supporting the OL’s statement, Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering said that the government was trying to address the problems facing the sector. “We will initiate programmes to make local fruits and vegetables available throughout the year.”

Agriculture Minister Yeshey Penjor said that the government’s focus now was on producing high quality fruits and vegetables through value addition and storage facilities.

Responding to the questions from opposition MP Dorji Wangdi and Lungten Namgyel about the installation of cold storage facilities, the agriculture minister said that in the 12th plan, a maximum of eight integrated warehouses would be installed. Phuntsholing and Samdrupjongkhar have the facilities. Gelephu and Nganglam will soon have one each.

Lyonchhen, however, said that cold storage was not the solution. For instance, apple can be stored in cold storage without losing nutrients but there is no research on other fruits and vegetables and how they can be stored. Spinach, tomato, and aubergine cannot be stored for 5-6 months.

The price was also a concern, Lyonchhen said. “What if we sell stored products at a hiked price? People will then prefer cheaper imported goods.”

As an experiment, the government is looking at procuring two multi-chambered  cold storage facilities.

MP Ugyen Wangdi asked the government what was being done about irrigation projects for successful farming. Vegetable-rich parts of the country, he said, were facing water problems and suggested that places be identified where production could be maximised and then replicated to other places.

Prime Minister said that budget for irrigation would now be allocated through the annual grant for dzongkhags, which would bring in equal development in different gewogs. “Research has found that for five different gewogs, there were five irrigation canals. The grant would help to build one workable canal to benefit all.”

The gewogs, Lyonchhen said, had only few households and dividing gewogs from the dzongkhags widened the communication gap.

The need for motorable farm roads for better access to market was also discussed. Lyonchhen said that the focus now was to reduce import and connect the farm roads. Out of 9,200km of farm roads in the country, 1,400km would have granular sub base (GSB) in the first phase.

Lyonchhen said that levelling and proper drainage was an important component of GSB roads. “We have also allocated the budget for this according to the experts from works and human settlement ministry.”