Not long ago, Bhutanese would have no issues with shortage of fresh vegetables. They knew the harsh winter is no season for green vegetables. They dried and stored vegetables to see through the winter. In other words, they were prepared and secured essentials to last through the dry months.
For about three to four months, the dolom kam, kakuru kam, lom and many other dried vegetables were enough. Few regions grew winter vegetables, but the distance and lack of transportation means it is restricted to the regions that grew vegetables.
Today, the essentials that our parents stored have become delicacies that even the Bhutanese diaspora demands paying huge amounts in shipping them to foreign lands. At home, shortage of vegetables is a huge issue. The restrictions posed by the pandemic have not helped exposing our vulnerabilities.
Since the dry pumpkin or spinach days, our decision makers had been insisting on food self sufficiency. The warmer foothills has the potential to fill the gap. It was recognised and efforts were put in. The efforts, however, are yet to bear fruits.
Winter vegetables from southern dzongkhags, which were supposed to hit the market since December, couldn’t keep up with the demand. There are problems, both natural and manmade. The vagaries of weather are out of our hands, but when shortage of water is hampering production, we see a big problem.
This is happening with all the focus on agriculture like the economic contingency plan budget rolled out in response to Covid-19 pandemic and addressing vegetable shortages in winter. What is happening, for instance, in Samteling, Gelephu, where lack of water, human wildlife conflict and erratic weather affected winter vegetable production is a microcosm of the investments made in the whole agriculture business in the country. It also exposes the bare truth of food production, sufficiency and security.
We have ample policies drafted to ensure food security, self sufficiency and poverty reduction programmes since the initiation of planned activities in 1961. We also identified food and nutrition security as a policy objective since the eighth Plan. Then there are numerous other plans, programmes and initiatives.
But we are still heavily dependent on food import, especially from India, including dairy, meat, rice, and vegetables. We import food products worth about Nu 7 billion annually. The Covid-19 pandemic has also revealed how our food sufficiency or security until now meant ensuring food availability and access to food through imports.
The so-called local chilies and bananas vanished from the shelves at Centenary Farmers’ Market when the border gates were closed exposing that we had been hoodwinking ourselves in the name of local produce.
The pandemic gave us an opportunity to rethink and relook at our plans, policies and strategies. This is, however, not new. We have been saying we need to prioritise growing our own food. It is a shame that we are still saying the same thing.
We need to find out why farmers who received government support, still face the basic agriculture problems they faced for decades. It’s also time for our specialists in agriculture to implement what they studied to ensure we produce enough.
While we have to produce about 26MT of vegetables for the winter months, our target is to produce about 9MT, leaving a huge gap, which has to be filled with import.
We have learnt during the pandemic that it is basic food or essentials that many are worried about. If we cannot ensure that, something is wrong with our policies or implementation. We have technology, human resources and the urgency. It is now or never. If we can’t grow our own food, as an agrarian society, it will be hard to achieve other things that we are not used to.
As we look forward to a new year, agriculture or food self-sufficiency is one area that we could recommit to.