Is food self-sufficiency a realistic goal?

With increasing rice imports, the deficit has stretched by 24 percent since 2012

Agriculture: With a food trade deficit of Nu 5.2B in 2013, food sufficiency still remains an arduous task for the country, as the deficit widened by 24 percent from 2012, mainly on account of increasing rice imports.

Bhutan imported essential food items worth Nu 6.3B in 2013, according to the Royal Monetary Authority’s annual report, including Nu 1.5B worth of rice.

The provisional trade statistics for 2014 also reveals that, from January to mid-October, rice imports shot up to Nu 1.45B.

Rice imports, department of agriculture’s joint director, Ganesh Chhetri, said usually hovered around Nu 800M or around 50,000MT (metric tonnes) until 2011.

“People used fake bills, on account of rice import, to avail Indian rupees from the banks since 2012,” he said, attributing this to sharp increase in rice imports.

The Anti-Corruption Commission, while investigating a case on illegal rupee repatriation last year, found that a paan shop in Thimphu had been regularly importing 20MT of rice.

Yet, even without the bogus imports, the country’s rice self sufficiency rate was just around 50 percent.  This, Ganesh Chhetri said, was because rice is the staple diet for Bhutanese, and its production is labour intensive.

However, the overall food self-sufficiency rate is over 80 percent and it is very comfortable, the joint director said.  For instance, Bhutan exports huge quantities of potatoes.

“Bhutan was self sufficient in rice and it even exported to Tibet, which was bartered for salt,” he said, referring to the history, and adding that 95 percent of the population were from farming households those days.

Now, rural-urban migration, he said, occurred so fast that it drained all the labourers from the villages and compelled the country to import more. “Our farmers are self-sufficient in rice, and they also grow additional rice for the urban lot.”

The decreasing share of budget towards agriculture sector was also another reason; officials from the department said which lead to low investment in the sector and thus slow growth.

In the fourth Five Year Plan, agriculture sector was allocated 44 percent of the total budget and 33 percent in the following Plan.  Since then it has been declining to the extent of 5.5 percent in the 10th Plan and 2.3 percent in the current one.

For rice production, irrigation was the main catalyst but, sadly, Ganesh Chhetri said, the level of government investment in the previous years was very low.

But now, another official form the department said, in the 11th Plan, of the Nu 2.3B budget allocated for the department, Nu 1.6B was allocated for irrigation, and Nu 600M has been received so far.

Around 12 irrigation schemes were completed since 2009 and in the 11th Plan, the agriculture department intends to construct an additional 42 new ones.

Even with various initiatives from the department, officials said the rice self-sufficiency rate would increase at most to 65 percent. “The issue is not whether it’s possible or not to achieve self sufficiency, the issue is about sustainability,” he said.

For instance, most farmers choose to cultivate other cash crops like potatoes, cardamom and apples instead of rice, because they earned more from the cash crops, which require less work. “Rice cultivation is back-breaking and there are few things, which can’t be mechanised and still requires labour,” he said.

The only way forward, Ganesh Chhetri said, is to look at rice as a cash crop and let farmers earn more profit.  But this too was difficult, because production cost of rice is too high, mainly driven by labour costs, that people still would choose to buy Indian rice brands. “This is where the government subsidy should come in, if food security is important,” he said, adding the production so far is thriving on farmers’ effort.

Meanwhile, the trade statistics also reveal that Bhutan imported meat worth Nu 711M from January to October, last year.  In 2013, meat imports stood at more than Nu 1B.

The import figure for vegetables in the same period in 2014 was Nu 1.8M against Nu 3.2M in the entire year of 2013.

More than Nu 1B worth of dairy products were imported in 2013, against Nu 991M last year (January-October).

 

Tshering Dorji

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