Cheesed out?

The capital city’s main thoroughfare, Norzin Lam, is not rotting. But some part of the street sure does smell of rotten cheese as hundreds, even thousands of cheese balls are rotting at the outlet.

Bhutanese, if we may generalise like smelly cheese, if not completely rotten. It is the perfect ingredient of a delicious emadatshi, the easy to cook favourites dish of many. When the government announced the sudden nationwide lockdown, many panicked where to buy fresh cheese or just cheese. Cheese is still an important ingredient in Bhutanese dishes. Butter, not so much as people become more health conscious.

All the cheese and butter was brought to the capital to meet the demand or the assumed demand. Records with the Bhutan Livestock Development Corporation show that over 130,000 balls of cheese and more than 74,000 kilograms of butter was brought to the capital city during the lockdown. Only half of it was sold.

Similarly about 5,000 kilograms of chicken went to waste, as they had to be disposed. This all happened when many were running out of the essential items. Chicken, for most, is a treat even without a lockdown.

The experience has taught us some valuable lessons. What we can be sure of is there is enough supply. What we lack are facilities to encourage those trying to make a living from livestock. We supply, with subsidy, hybrid cattle to farmers, encourage farmers’ cooperatives and many more. What we have missed, learning from this experience is the most important part – linking farmers to the market. And more than that, not letting investment and hard work go into waste.

If the purpose of transportation is to enable the movement of goods, the recent experience has taught us where to invest. We need to invest in facilities that can not only make many live off livestock or horticulture, but achieve the renewed urgency of food self-sufficiency. The need for cold chains, refrigerated vehicles to ensure perishable goods are not damaged was felt with urgency. Availability of dairy products was not a problem.  Storing them, officials experienced, was the main issue during the lockdown.

For our policy makers, this is not bad news. Producing food is a problem. If we can produce enough, we should have the technology, the idea and most importantly, the will to not let them go in waste. If livestock can be a profitable means of livelihood and even employ people, it should receive priority. It should not end with the farmer or a businessman churning out butter and cheese. It should find a market in many forms, fresh or fermented.

The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us a lot of lessons. We have realised how basic needs transcend all our wants. The general feeling is that there will be no new normal, as initially thought. What we are going through is the normal and it is only wise to adapt to this. The pandemic came as a good reminder for the negligence of the agriculture and livestock sector.

If we can learn from this pandemic, food-wise, Bhutanese will be ready for any sort of crisis. If we don’t, we will be remembered as fools for not learning from mistakes.

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