Food independence is national independence

As a member of the shrinking world, Bhutan has not been spared from the impact of global or regional crises in the past. We have directly felt the impact of a war in the Middle East or a stock market crashing in the United States of America. And we have moved on like the rest of the international community.

 The Covid-19 pandemic is going to leave an indelible mark on us. It is already changing everything—from the way we work to the economic priorities. Experts believe that those who can adapt quickly to the change will see lesser impact. The warning is that Covid-19 is not the end even with a vaccine.

Governments around the world are embracing change, in close consultations with medical experts. A global crisis like the Covid-19 exposed our weaknesses. For example, with tourism feeling the direct blow through cancellations by tourists, even cooks and drivers in Bhutan lost their jobs.

If there was no Covid-19, this time of the year—peak tourist season—would be the busiest for the tourism and service industry. This year, most of them have returned to the safety of farming or agriculture.

We hear that the agriculture ministry is thinking seriously about growing our own food. Each dzongkhag has been asked to grow certain crops. This is a relief. Covid-19 and the shortage of essential vegetables are a powerful reminder that we are as vulnerable as ever.

 It may sound like a case of becoming wiser after the event, but it is not. The importance of food security has been at the core of our development priorities. Fallowing, youth leaving farms and rushing to cities, the issue of wild animals have been the recurring theme in our development story.

The assumption that money will guarantee self-reliance is not a complete concept. A landlocked country cannot assume that relatively inexpensive food supplies will always be available for import. We saw people panic and hoarding at the first reports of a lockdown. Food export and import, even when it is available, are dependent on many factors. Most are out of our control. We have no onions after India banned export.

As we plan to live with Covid-19, it is a good time for serious introspection. It might even be a good idea to look again at how our ancestors survived over the centuries as an interdependent society. Our long-standing policy of balanced development requires that urbanisation cannot take place without a very heavy investment in agriculture to increase agricultural production through intensive mechanisation, use of new fertilisers, new plant strains. Food independence is national independence.

Bhutan’s agriculture policies are nearly impeccable. The emphasis on rural development is the best solution. But the balance is being tipped by the force of urbanisation, particularly unplanned urbanisation. Rural Bhutan is being swept along by the side effects of globalisation.

The agriculture ministry is planning new subsidies and incentives for food producers. Given our small population, food self-sufficiency is well within reach. His Majesty The King again reminded us of our priorities recently. Many countries going after “planned development” forgot or neglected agriculture. They regretted it.

We are also starting to regret that we cannot grow enough tomatoes when import is restricted. It is the harvest season in Bhutan. The general agreement is that Covid-19 pandemic taught us to return to our roots.  Growing our own food will be our greatest streangth at a time when the world is filled with uncertainties. 

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