The news that Food Corporation Bhutan (FCB) will continue to buy local rice despite poor marketability is welcome. It perhaps is the only way to encourage farmers to continue growing local rice and thereby increasing rice production in the country. Already, the Cabinet has instructed FCB to procure paddy from Wangdue, Punakha, Tsirang, Sarpang, and Samdrupjongkhar.
Farm shops that number more than 100 across the country will buy paddy from the farmers, mill and sell them. That’s an encouraging initiative. Buy back scheme should be implemented so that farmers can sell their surplus produce to farm shops.
Performance audit report has found that the poor price of local rice has affected the marketability of rice. This calls for an earnest intervention from agriculture ministry and the government to improve the quality of local varieties. This will need establishment of state-of-the-art labs where research can be undertaken to improve rice quality. That means increasing the shelf life of the local varieties too.
An agreement was reached between FCB and Ministry of Education to supply locally produced rice to schools through the school feeding programme. Nothing much seems to have happened since then. A follow up must be done as soon as possible. Agriculture sector is becoming smaller by the year. Close to 1,023 acres of paddy fields have been lost to road, building, and township development. As we speak, at least 6,345 acres of paddy fields in the country are left fallow.
For Bhutan to be rice self-sufficient, the country will need at least 160,000 acres of paddy fields, which could produce about 260,320 metric tonnes of paddy annually. The country faces shortage of rice by almost 180,068.225 metric tonnes. Against this backdrop, encouraging rice production in large sale is critically important. Agriculture ministry has begun commercial paddy farming on fallow wetland across the country, but there is a need to speed up the programme.
Decreasing public investment, low yield and high production costs, losses due to human-wildlife conflicts, limited access to markets, credit, inputs (seeds) and machines are some of the factors that discourage our farmers to take up large-scale farming. We know the causes. It is upon us to find solutions. The sooner we do this, the better. There is a critical need for shift in target and practice. Because agriculture is also a major sector, improvements could generate significant employment opportunities, particularly for the young.
At the heart of agriculture development lies investment, which must grow. Allotting just 2.3 percent of national budget to the sector is not enough. This will not make this country rice self-sufficient and, more importantly food self-sufficient, ever.