For food self sufficiency

The agriculture department has an ambitious, but important target of bringing about 79,040 acres, roughly about 32 international football-ground sized paddy fields under improved irrigation systems. That would be an achievement towards ensuring food security.

Unfortunately, it is to remain a plan. There is no budget or human resources and 37 irrigation schemes of the 108 identified in the current Plan will have to be shelved. The plan was to overhaul some of the existing irrigation channels and construct new ones.

Still largely dependent on agriculture, this is a huge setback on our dreams of achieving food self-sufficiency. As a rice eating population and largely dependent on imports, bringing even one acre of land under rice cultivation would provide solutions to a lot of problems we are facing now.

The dependence on imported rice is growing by the day. In 2013, we imported rice worth Nu 1.45 billion albeit including the fake imports. It is increasingly being felt that it is cheaper to import food grains than producing our own. That is why more fields are being left fallow. The economy of returns is poor. Therefore, we see an increasing urban drift. Farmers are experiencing success in the concept of cash income for farmers. Then there is the issue of wild animals that is discouraging more farmers to abandon cultivation.

But depending on cheap imports is a bad concept even if we have the money. As a land locked country, there are risks in relying on what others produce. We have experienced the unreliability in the past. When roads, our lifeline, get blocked, food becomes expensive and scarce. Any disturbance in food prices in India sends shockwaves rippling through Bhutan. And India is increasingly experiencing strange climatic conditions that are disrupting the food supply chain. It is even worse when factors that affect food availability or price is out of our hands.

There is an agreement that agriculture, that has been the backbone of our economy, should be prioritised. But our focus has been largely on other sectors. Agriculture will provide solutions to the growing unemployment problem. If our irrigation channels are reliable, and our farms mechanised, it will be easier to encourage young educated people to return to the farm and take up agriculture as a profession. The market is already there.

Given the importance of the sector and the associated benefits, it would not be wrong to reprioritise the budget, limited it may be. The evidence is clear that if Bhutanese can produce, there is a market. Khamtey rice from Bangtar or Champak from Chuzargang are becoming household names.

And given our smaller population, food self-sufficiency is within our reach if agriculture receives the priority. Irrigation schemes, agricultural techniques and continued mechanisation should still be the development focus.

1 reply
  1. irfan
    irfan says:

    Given the geography and topography of the country, how rice has become both a staple crop and food probably has its answer in migration trends of older world. The recent increase in rice import may have a correlation with the huge force of expatriate workers involved mainly in physical labour demanded in all the project sites. Rice remains the favourite choice of carbohydrate for the population.

    If the paddy fields are not shrinking in size over a considerable time, the irrigation projects on paper has faced a cut down in numbers. More than merely chasing down the increased rice demand, the farmers can also try export oriented premium quality rice grains. The different available sources of carbohydrate needs can be re-mapped for a better distribution in the agriculture scenario. Along with agriculture, horticulture and aqua-culture should get due priority as they can offer more verticals in the business of food processing and export.

    Agriculture is also about cultivation of different animals to be consumed as food. If we leave aside the vegetarians, animal protein remains a requirement for a good diet for the others. If yaks are a part of life and culture in the high altitude regions, a sheep is still not that popular among the traditional herds-men. But time is changing and so is the weather around. A mega poultry farm may not be a success story in extreme cold weather. Still, slaughtering of animals within the country for food remains the barrier for very much valid as well as validated sentiments. Rice with potato curry once again remains a confused meal while experts are still busy explaining and fighting the spread of life style related diseases. Probably it’s our style of agriculture that needs a renewed food related statement.

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