Chhimi Dema 

Bhutan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Fiji, India, Nepal, The Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam signed an agreement to foster cross-country seed-sharing and empower the region’s seed sector yesterday in Thimphu.

Called Seeds Without Borders, the agreement aims to speed up the distribution of modern, climate-resilient rice varieties across nations to help vulnerable farmers establish a secure food supply for their families and earn a higher income.

Bhutan joined the Seeds Without Borders agreement on June 13, 2018.

Agriculture Minister Yeshey Penjor said that Bhutan is honoured to be part of Seeds Without Borders as this agreement is instrumental in implementing the country’s programmes to achieve food and nutritional security.

“It would also help Bhutan’s food system become self-reliant, productive, diverse, resilient, and sustainable,” he said.

The agreement initiated by International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) was first signed between Bangladesh and India in 2013.

IRRI works to abolish poverty and hunger among people and populations that depend on rice-based agri-food systems.

Director General of IRRI, Jean Balié, said that the Seeds Without Borders agreement allows farmers from member countries to access an expanded selection of high-quality seeds that have desired traits.

“By sharing and exchanging improved seeds across their borders, countries can more rapidly reap the benefits of higher productivity, higher quality and resilience across similar agroecologies,” he said.

Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports show that over 90 percent of the world’s rice is produced and consumed in the Asia-Pacific Region. Countries like the Republic of Korea and Japan have started seeing declining per capita rice consumption with growing prosperity and urbanisation.

But, nearly a fourth of the Asian population is still poor and has considerable unmet demand for rice, according to FAO. “It is in these counties that rice consumption will grow.”

Jean Balié said that Seeds Without Borders is not just about strengthening seed systems. “It is also about more effectively addressing food security, health and nutrition and climate resilience.”

According to a press release from IRRI, the Thimphu Protocol would help to improve the process of agreements under Seeds Without Borders.

The latest agreement also intends to add roots, tuber crops, and fruit crops in addition to rice and other cereals, pulses, oil seeds, vegetables, sugarcane, and fibre crops for seed-sharing.

Fiji, The Philippines, and Vietnam joined as members with the signing of the Thimphu Protocol yesterday.

Officials from Burundi, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, The Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia participated as observer countries.

Department of Agriculture’s director, Yonten Gyamtsho, said that before the initiatives on rice research in the country, farmers were growing indigenous low-yielding rice varieties.

The rice consumption of Bhutanese is increasing while the production can’t meet the production’s pace, he said.

Currently, Bhutan’s rice self-sufficiency stands at 37 percent.

Shortage of labour, human-wildlife conflict, fragmented landholding, changing land use, and inadequate irrigation are some of the challenges that the agriculture sector faces today.

Yonten Gyamtsho said that given the challenges, the ministry is innovating the sector with farm mechanisation and sourcing high-value crops to drive the agriculture sector.

“Without the initiative, we have to develop crop varieties that fit the expectations of the farming community,” he said, adding that with this agreement it is easy to approach the member countries and request for seeds.

Bhutan shared Yusi Kewa Maap seeds with India and received nine rice varieties from Nepal which are undergoing field testing at the research centres.

There are 27 improved rice varieties in the country today.