Agriculture ministry places import restriction on select produce

Customers complain of inflated vegetable prices  

Choki Wangmo

Early morning, the Centenary Farmers’ Market in Thimphu woke up to full parking spaces, large groups of people and rushing vegetable pickup trucks. Within a few hours, a vendor sold off her whole day’s stock.

Tashi Tshering, a doma addict rushed to the market after hearing about the ban on betel leaf and areca nuts. He bought betel leaf and nuts to last him for two months. Disappointed, he said, “By the time I got here, Bangla pata was sold out. The outer layer of the areca nut is not removed, even.”

Since the agriculture minister Yeshey Penjor announced a temporary ban on imported fruits, vegetables and areca nuts and betel leaf on March 24 in Covid-19’s wake, people have gathered at the vegetable market to panic-buy. “Import of vegetables is forced to stop due to no disinfection option.”

He justified that a ban was imposed since the health ministry advised the agriculture ministry to disinfect goods coming into the country, but it was not possible for fruits, vegetables and meat. The ban is applicable to betel leaf and areca nuts.

Lyonpo’s Facebook statement said: “Farmers have been requested to increase their farm produce with a buyback guarantee from the government. Urban dwellers are once again requested to start digging your backyard and other open spaces in the vicinity.”

However, a vegetable supplier, Sangay Om said, that the ban should be imposed only after studying the market situation. “More than half of Bhutanese populace lives in towns. Many are reluctant to work on farms.”

The local vegetable and fruit production might not be sufficient, Sangay Om said, adding that the local produce is expensive.

A few days ago, she imported more than 2,000 kilograms of vegetables. She also supplies vegetables to hotels that have turned into quarantine centres across the capital.

Tshering Dema, a vegetable vendor, buys from the wholesalers. She said it would be easier to buy the local produce but was worried about how the local market would be able to meet the demand.

“Bhutan’s vegetables are seasonal,” she said.

A local vendor who buys vegetables from Tsirang and Punakha is, however, hopeful. Cultivating the fallow lands with increased inputs, she said, might increase production.

A youth working in one of the agriculture groups said that the group was processing for land lease in the dzongkhags to start large-scale farming. She, however, had concerns about how the local producers can meet the domestic demand as the vegetable growing takes time.

An official of the Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority said the authority did not get any official directives from the ministry and the earlier import ban is still on for beans, cauliflowers, chillies and meat, “including raw, processed, frozen and dry meat until further notice.”

To increase local food production, the agriculture ministry announced that the government is committed and prepared to support all venturing into food farming such as low-interest rates, marketing, technical guidance, and procurement of implements.

The netizens appreciated the ministry’s move to go local but shared concerns on the increased price of the local products. They suggested monitoring the price as the price of a kilogram of chilli increased from Nu 100 to Nu 250 yesterday alone.

In response, Lyonpo on his Facebook page wrote that people should not worry about the shortage of supplies in the market since it is a growing season. He urged people not to hoard and panic buy as the price will depend on how consumers behave. “If consumers rush and hoard, sellers will take advantage.”

He clarified that the import control was a temporary measure and not a ban.

At a press conference yesterday, Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said, while there was no medical evidence that Covid-19 can be contracted from vegetables, fruits and meat, if Bhutanese could eat local products, it is safe and quality assured.

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