The agriculture ministry, in signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) on November 24, stated that it has identified rice production as a priority in the 12th Plan.

The MoU, according to agriculture minister Yeshey Dorji, is expected to accelerate rice production.

He said that owing to the topography and geographical landscape, the country has less rice cultivable land. “The MoU is expected to explore ways to increase and diversify rice production with the limited rice cultivable land.”

The country is around 50 percent self-sufficient in rice production and the ministry aims to achieve 60 percent in the next five years.

“We have initiated spring rice cultivation to achieve the target. We hope the organisation would help in this endeavour,” said the minister.

He said that Bhutan’s association with IRRI began around 1984 where it provided human resource development and technical expertise. “IRRI played a vital role in 1995 when rice blast epidemic affected around 1,800 acres of land and resulted in a loss of nearly 1,100 metric tonnes of rice.”

Records show that  scientists from IRRI helped in identifying the cause of the epidemic and found ways to prevent future outbreaks. “But the collaboration stopped since 2000,” the minister said.

Lyonpo Yeshey Dorji said that the MoU signing marked a renewed collaboration.

The government and the IRRI agreed to revive and strengthen the partnership in July last year to assist the country’s rice industry, to solve challenges and emerging needs to diversify and increase rice production.

The director general of IRRI, Matthew Morell, who signed the MoU with agriculture secretary Rinzin Dorji, said the collaboration would bring technology, knowledge and diversify production through germplasm in Bhutan. “But the biggest reason to be optimistic is that the MoU marks the renewed relationship and mutual commitment to taking us forward.”

He said that IRRI could bring in global research, facilitate training to help the country increase rice production and diversify the varieties.

He also said that the challenges of pressure on the land with urbanisation, labour shortage, availability of water, affordability of fertilisers and other inputs and climate change impacts are common issues faced by many rice-growing countries. “We can work together and exchange available technologies.”

Matthew Morell said IRRI could help Bhutan continue improving the productivity of traditional rice variety and make them more tolerant to drought, cold and nutrient deficient. “We can also work towards exchange knowledge on Bhutan’s organic produce with other countries.”

The MoU is also expected to explore ideas to solve the issues of rice blast and common problems faced in elevated environment and facilitate human resource development. Other areas of collaboration are in the management of rice production to change the rice production duration and explore spring cropping season with research and training to enhance productivity.