Covid-19 triggers agriculture and forest policy changes 

Choki Wangmo

Covid-19 has not only sent Bhutanese digging their backyards to grow vegetables but might also trigger a few policy changes in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forest and even accelerate Bhutan’s ability to achieve food security goals.

While the ministry has no authority to force people to take up agriculture, Minister Yeshey Penjor said that Bhutan could change marketing strategies and sustain the increased interest in agriculture triggered by the pandemic in the future.

He said that agricultural products in the country were supply-driven where people work to increase production on their small farms and then sell or auction the surplus at a lower price. “The problem with that strategy is the farmers are at the mercy of buyers, who have control over market price; therefore, discouraging people in agriculture.”

The ministry wants to propose demand-driven production, whereby the farmers produce products which have higher demand in the market and get a higher price. “Covid-19 has taught us how fragile our food security is but this experience should teach us the importance of market for our products.”

For that change, Lyonpo said,    Bhutan should diversify the products through value addition so that there is a wider market for Bhutanese products.

He said that the Bhutanese potatoes are used only as vegetable due to high sugar content. Similarly, the maize species in the country, except for small-scale consumption as food, cannot be used to produce cornflakes which is highly demanded in the international market. “If we are to attract the international market for our agricultural products through value addition such as branding and packaging, we need to have high-quality seeds.”

Lyonpo said that there was a need to monitor value chain process and focus on supply-driven production with proper marketing strategies.

On his recent tour in dzongkhags, Lyonpo said that the local governments raised concern about finding an adequate market for the agricultural production, which is on the rise due to the pandemic.

With a total budget of Nu 11.4 million, the urban agriculture initiative has identified chili, tomato, aubergine, Cole crops, cabbage, and cauliflower among others based on their growing ability, market demand and consumption volume.

As vegetable production is seasonal, vegetables are aplenty during the growing season, and the import is high in the winter season. Last year, within six months, Bhutan imported 10,455MT of fresh vegetables.

To avoid market imbalance, the ministry is also working on providing cold storage and drying facilities, greenhouses, integrated warehouses, open warehouse, and market sheds in urban areas.

“As the government cannot provide input for commercial farmers, people can avail CSI loan at a reduced interest rate.”

To retain people in the villages as suggested by the local government leaders, the ministry would also strengthen farm mechanisation in rural areas.

The ministry wants to seek technical guidance from experts who superannuated from the department to help young people in agriculture prosper.

As wildlife predation is challenge for farmers in rural areas, the government has introduced compensation through financial incentives—endowment fund for subsistence farmers and the agriculture ministry is negotiating with Royal Insurance Cooperation Limited for crop and livestock insurance for commercial farmers.

The forest department has started planting fruit-bearing trees in the forest to increase food resources for wild animals, Lyonpo said.

Wild animals are in the agriculture field as humans encroached in their habitat. When these animals are in the fields, predators such as tigers are left without food, increasing the human-wildlife conflict. “We are rethinking forestry policy on how we can provide forest resources available to people so that they don’t have to destroy the habitat at a large scale.”

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