The statistics coming out on the export and import of essential food items is not very encouraging. This is because if we are deep in the red in terms of trade deficit, it is becoming worse.
And it is happening when there are a lot of initiatives or talks about substituting import, promoting local produce and reducing the dependence on the Indian Rupee. Sparked by the shortage of the Indian rupee, a good decision the previous government imitated and sincerely continued by the present government, with more impetus, is on enhancing vegetable production.
Not only do we import thousands of tonnes of vegetable, we can also grow it within Bhutan, even if it for a few months in a year. Export has increased by almost 300 percent between 2011 and 2014. Unfortunately, latest figures show that import too had been increasing every year. Import of vegetables, fruits and nuts had increased by Nu89 million in one year.
While the efforts should be appreciated, the reality is that as a landlocked country with limited agricultural land, it will be an uphill task to achieve self-sufficiency in essential food items including vegetables. With a growing expatriate community and the higher purchasing power of Bhutanese, we will see more demand for food items. If we are not producing enough vegetables or depend on seasons, we are encouraging all to eat green.
Not long ago, we were happy with dried vegetables in winter, but we look for fresh green chillies in peak winter. The warmer plains in the neighbouring Indian states can supply them. The demand is there and so is the affordability.
Bhutanese are spoilt for choice now. It is not only vegetables. We have variety of cooking oil, cereals or fruits. Gone are the days when mustard oil or the famous Dalda (hydrogenated coking oil) were the only choice. We can use olive or refined palm oil from India, Malaysia or Thailand. The dalda is now reduced to making butter lamps. There too, we have a variety to choose from.
It is safe to surmise that a factor that pushes import is the cost of locally produced food. There is no control over locally produced vegetables even if they are only as good as imported. The mere mention of local drives the price through the roof.
Not many care and encourage middlemen to charge exorbitant price for local produce. This drives many to buy cheaper imported vegetables. It is good to know that indigenous crops have a rising cash value, but farmers are not benefitting.
Vegetable, how seasonal it may be, is one item we can produce. With incentives and technical support from the government, farmers will be encouraged and those unemployed will be encouraged to return to the farms.
Recently, a recommendation at a workshop for dzongkhag agriculture officers and horticulturists was to initiate agro-ecological zonation of all chiwogs and gewogs for year-round commercial vegetable production, to ensure continuous supply of vegetables in the country, and to reduce dependence on imported vegetables. This is a brilliant idea and should not remain as a mere recommendation.
The market is there. The benefit will go beyond meeting the demand.