Food security: Experts from the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) member countries have gathered in Thimphu to discuss ways to boost food production and work on a long term plan to achieve food security in the region.

With 12 percent of the region’s population or 490 million people being undernourished, most of them located in South Asia, the region is faced with an alarming situation.

Nearly one out of three children suffers from stunting, which results in severe, irreversible consequences on both physical health and cognitive function. With more than 60 percent of the world’s hungry living in the Asia-Pacific, the slower progress in the region has led to high global numbers of the chronically hungry, experts said.

Asia’s population is expected to increase from 4.3 billion in 2015 to 5.1 billion in 2050. China and India together account for 28 and 40 percent of the world’s cereal and palm oil consumption respectively.

BIMSTEC secretary general Sumith Nakandala said: “Asia’s importance for food markets is becoming amplified by higher economic growth in Asian economies, which will have an impact on both the composition and the level of food consumption.”

As in the member states of BIMSTEC, Bhutan faces many challenges in agriculture such as increasing and sustaining agriculture growth, ensuring food and nutrition security, adverse effects of climate change, and the mountainous terrain.

While the country’s exports of agriculture and food products grew at an average rate of 15 percent per annum over the period 2008 to 2014, import of agricultural products over the same period grew by 16 percent per annum. This has been exacerbated by significant levels of migration from rural to urban areas, as well as increased demand for imported foodstuffs.

The overall growth of agriculture has been relatively slow in Bhutan in the recent past because of low levels of investment, lack of appropriate technology for mountain farming, predominance of subsistence farming, and lack of market access.

Agriculture minister Yeshey Dorji said that the government is prioritising agricultural development in the 12th Plan to achieve self-reliance through inclusive green socio-economic development.

“Recognising the importance of investments in agriculture for socio-economic development of the country, the government has initiated numerous efforts such as commercialisation of agriculture, increased investments in irrigation, farm mechanisation, foreign direct investment, public private partnership, contract farming, among others, to make a more conducive environment for the promotion of trade and investment,” the minister said.

A recent Food and Agriculture Organisation study on the Asia-Pacific countries has urged governments in the region to accelerate their efforts in investing more agricultural research to produce food more efficiently and build connectivity and infrastructure in the region.

Despite unprecedented technological advancements, the agriculture sector is faced with some uncertainties. Climate change and reduction of cultivable land area are the foremost hindrances.

When the BIMSTEC leaders met in Goa, India in October 2016, they reiterated their commitment to sustainable agriculture and food security and agreed to deepen cooperation in the agriculture sector, including crops, livestock and horticulture as well as to intensify cooperative efforts towards increased productivity and yields of agricultural produce in the region.

Bhutan has prepared a concept note on the promotion of agriculture trade and investment among BIMSTEC members. The agriculture ministry will host a workshop on this project next year.

The two-day meeting ends today and the next such meeting for representatives from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand will be held in Thailand next year.

Tshering Palden