In an  effort to boost the agriculture sector in the country, the government has declared 100 percent foreign direct investment (FDI) in the agriculture sector. The idea is that Bhutan must invest in modern technologies and adopt climate-smart approaches to enhance agriculture in Bhutan.

Agriculture is the backbone of the country. This is, at least,  what we (including the policy makers today) were taught and made to believe when in schools. Agriculture, with all its potential and importance has taken a backstage as we started chasing newer opportunities in mining, import, and most recently, artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency, blockchain, and many more.

It is good to pause and reflect on our potential. Agriculture that has been the mainstay of our economy is receiving the recognition it deserves. This is good, if not late. Agriculture is a boring topic, not at all appealing to the Tik-tok generation, but it is what tiny Bhutan is known for. If there is a potential, it is agriculture if we know how to produce and market.

The agriculture sector employs the most, but there is nothing much to show that benefits the masses. If we can improve and advance the sector, we could create a difference. Agriculture in Bhutan is largely subsistence farming where farmers grow to consume and sell the little surplus for cash income. 

The brand, whether Himalayan or mountain fresh, sells in a world where consumers have become conscious.  Bhutanese asparagus, for instance, an exporter said are sold for Rs 500 a small bundle in the posh areas in New Delhi. They do not mind the price. They know it is fresh and organic coming from Bhutan. If marketing gurus could convince consumers that our asparagus are watered with fresh snow-fed Himalayan water, the price could triple.

The agri-food trade and investment forum is a platform to recognise the potential of our farm produce. What it calls for is investment in agriculture whether it is mechanisation, sustainable farming or at the least ensuring farmers big or small can produce food. For that we need to get the basics right. When farmers are tired of farming, because of, for instance, having to guard his share of water or to ward off the wild, many find cheap imports as an alternative.

Foreign direct investment could work to a certain extent. Involving farmers – starting from the international conferences or forums to letting them recognize the potential, helping them realize the potential could make a difference. The idea, we surmise, is not to benefit a few businessmen at the cost of hardworking farmers. 

Not far from the capital, the Punakha-Wangdue valley has huge potential for agriculture. Whether it is organic avocados or broccoli, they can be produced with the right interventions. Quite often what is decided over gala dinners or grand exhibitions are not flowing to producers or farmers. 

Today, there are only a handful of smart businessmen who know what could work riding on brand Bhutan. There are hardly any initiatives targeted at Bhutanese farmers. While we talk of going organic, farmers are complaining, every year,  of shortage of water to irrigate their fields.

Decades after recognising food self-sufficiency as a national priority, we have become more dependent on import to the extent that farmers find it cheaper to buy than produce. It is a shame for agrarian Bhutan. 

FDIs might help because  it would help solve basic problems like investments, innovation or technology. The risk of FDI, from past experience, benefits only a  few smart business people. How would the initiative and the drive for agrifood, trade and investment forum  help Bhutanese farmers?

The forum provides an opportunity to think out of the box while reminding us of our real potential. If our aim is increase the agriculture sector’s contribution to GDP from USD 365 million in 2022 to USD 625 million by 2029, we are on a good start. The real challenge starts after the end of the forum.