Seven dzongkhags identified for winter vegetable production

MB Subba

Under the food self-sufficiency and nutrition security, one of the three components of the Economic Contingency Plan (ECP), the government has prioratised agriculture production based on the national priority, volume of the commodity the country imports and the production potential.

The prioritised commodities are cereals, maize, buckwheat, wheat, vegetables, mustard oil seeds, lentils, meat, fish and milk. Rice, however, has not been included in the prioritised list mainly to diversify the Bhutanese diet, which is predominantly rice based.

The per capita rice consumption in Bhutan was around 150 kg in 2018, which was one of the highest in South Asia. The per capita consumption of other cereals like maize, wheat and buckwheat was 105kg, 6kg and 3kg in 2019 respectively.

The key objective of the agriculture ECP is to boost agriculture and livestock production for food self-sufficiency, nutritional security and income generation. The ECP also aims to bring back potential fallow land under crop production and provide alternate employment and income generation opportunities for displaced people.

In terms of vegetable production, the agriculture ECP will prioritise winter vegetable production with an objective to reduce imports, and especially meet demand for the northern dzongkhags where winter vegetable production is not feasible.

To enhance winter vegetables, the local governments of Samtse, Sarpang, Samdrupjongkhar, Tsirang, Chhukha, Pemagatshel and Dagana have been allocated Nu 40.1 million (M), which is half of their agriculture ECP resource.

Bhutan imported a total of 15,326 metric tonnes (MT) of vegetables in 2019, out of which 7,542MT was imported during the winter months, between August and February, as per the Bhutan Trade Statistics, 2019.

Speaking at the launch of the ECP, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said, “The sealing of borders narrows import of food but widens opportunity to produce our own. We are revisiting our age-old practice of conventional subsistence farming with modern tools and innovative ideas.”

He said that the agriculture ECP seeks to encourage farming and livestock production that sees year-round production and is not just market driven.

“I have constantly reminded all officials involved that the interventions we introduce through ECP should evolve into something more permanent, the sort that defines Bhutanese character,” he said, adding that it was in pursuit of a systemic transformation with a long-term national vision.

According to the agriculture ECP, production of commodities should be planned based on the market assessment and demand forecast. The current approach of production, access to market, however, will be continued.

The agriculture ECP will be pursued by the local governments (LGs), which have been provided a total budgetary grant of Nu 200M over and above the 12th Plan allocation. The grant is shared among the local governments based on their production capacity and households engaged in agriculture.

Each of the local governments are required to chart-out independent marketing plans for their produce. The products can be sold within the dzongkhag by connecting products to institutions like schools, hospitals and processing plants or outside the dzongkhag.

“The agriculture ECP will be pursued by the local government as agriculture fields are in the local area. Working on the field will be our farmers, farmers groups and youth cooperatives,” agriculture minister Yeshey Penjor said.

He said that the agriculture programme that will be undertaken at the community level would benefit from the government in terms of building irrigation channels and other activities.

Farmers groups, displaced employees, youth groups, cooperatives, land user certificate holders and progressive individual farmers will receive priority to produce the prirotised commodities.

As per the ECP, the Bhutan Livestock Development Corporation Limited (BLDCL) will operate at a commercial scale involving youth groups, cooperatives and progressive individual farmers to produce milk, meat chicken, pork and fish. This is aimed at ensuring a consistent supply of the above commodities, including meat, which is in high demand in Bhutan.

The agriculture sector employs 51 percent of the population but contributes 16 percent of the country’s GDP, which is disproportionately low.

However, the current pandemic and border restrictions have limited access to the Indian source market.

“This provides an opportunity to pursue the elusive goal of food self-sufficiency by increasing production and ultimately achieving import substitution, at least in a few agriculture commodities and livestock products to start with,” states the ECP.