With 28 percent of cultivable land used for rice cultivation, Bhutan is only 47 percent self-sufficient in rice.

A rice specialist from agriculture research and development centre in Bajo, Mahesh Ghimeray said that one of the main problems in Bhutan is the low production base.  “We’ve lots of forests and the wild animals attack the crops,” he said.

Another challenge is insufficient incentives for rice farming as it is cheaper to buy than produce rice, Mahesh Ghimeray said. “Wet land conversion to other land use and urbanisation are emerging challenges in Bhutan,” he said.

Rice constitutes 53 percent of daily dietary energy requirement for Bhutanese. Bhutan cultivates rice on 53,055 acres and produces 85,090MT. An acre produces an average yield of 1.68MT.

Bhutan is not alone.

The region of South Asia could face rice shortage if measures are not taken on time, experts said.

Scientists and experts on rice from International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal indicated that if conditions don’t improve to boost rice production it could impact not only South Asia but also global food supply.

They are in Thimphu to discuss ways to meet the rising demand for the staple food of the region through a project between the three countries.

An agriculture specialist, Tayan R Gurung (PhD) said, “The region grows 31 percent of the world’s rice and 18 percent of its wheat. Rice is the most important crop to regional food security.”

He said that to help ensure global food security and keep pace with the growing demand for rice, there is a need to increase production by 26 percent by 2035.

UN and IFPRI have projected that the region has to double food production to feed the population of 2-2.68 billion people by 2050, Tayan R Gurung said.

However, experts said rice production faces enormous challenges in the form of diminishing resources (land, water, and labour) and environmental threats, such as climate change, land and water degradation, and biodiversity loss.

The IRRI Bangladesh Country Representative Humnath Bhandari (PhD) said that two of the emerging challenges are rapid growth in population and economic growth.

He said that if the growth in rice production were not above the population growth rate, it would lead to rice shortage. Population growth in South Asia is expected to be about 19 million annually.

“For instance, in Nepal, rice productivity also determines political stability in the country,” he said. “It’s that important. Economic prosperity will bring a shift in the demand from quantity to quality of rice.”

Despite seven percent economic growth rate, the region has 15 percent of the people still poor.

“Rural –urban migration is increasing and since a majority of the population are youth adds to the labour shortage,” Humnath Bhandari said. He said that the area of rice cultivation has remained the same at 50 million hectares since 1960 while production and yield has rose from less than 100 million (M) metric tonnes (MT) to almost 250million MT in 2017.

“This is mainly because of investment in research and development of rice,” he said. “However, the growth rate in production has stagnated because of lack of better yielding varieties. South Asian economy is transforming, rice sector must too.”

Some of the measures initiated including enhance the current rice productivity and production levels, bridging yield gap between research and farmers’ fields, mechanisation to reduce drudgery so that youth would take up agriculture, and commercialisation.

Agriculture in South Asia is operated in roughly 270 million hectares representing 58 percent of the total regional land area.

South Asia also has 33.5 percent undernourished people in the world, and more than 50 percent of total wasted children under five years.

Some of the priorities the experts proposed were use of quality seeds or varieties, develop irrigation infrastructure and water management, improve soil fertility and nutrient management, and pest and disease management.

“Building partnership among research facilities and sharing knowledge could help in increasing productivity,” an expert from Bangladesh said.

Tshering Palden