In a bid to tackle rising domestic prices and ensure adequate availability, the Indian government recently imposed a ban on the export of non-basmati white rice. While this move may be aimed at safeguarding India’s interests, it has inadvertently impacted several countries, including Bhutan, which heavily relies on Indian rice imports to meet its demand.

Our connection with rice stretches back centuries, and it holds immense cultural and social significance. Rice has become an integral part of our cuisine, reflecting the country’s distinct traditions and heritage. However, as we embrace the complexities of modernity, the reliance on imported rice has intensified, posing considerable challenges to the nation’s food security and economic stability.

The recent ban on Indian rice exports has exposed the vulnerabilities of Bhutan’s food supply chain. Food security is not only about having enough food on the table today but also ensuring a sustainable and resilient food system for the future. Our efforts to boost domestic rice production have been commendable. However, the reality remains that the country’s rice growers can only meet a little over 30 percent of the total rice requirement. Factors such as fallow land, human-wildlife conflicts, lack of irrigation canals, and labour shortages have contributed to a 45 per cent decrease in domestic production, further highlighting the necessity of rice imports. We need to proactively address these factors. 

Agriculture, being the backbone of Bhutan’s economy, deserves strategic investment and support. Initiatives to promote modern farming techniques, provide access to credit facilities for farmers, and encourage the youth to engage in agriculture could be vital steps towards enhancing our rice production.

Our rich biodiversity and natural resources present an opportunity to explore alternative crops that are resilient to changing climates and have the potential to meet nutritional needs. By prioritising eco-friendly farming, Bhutan can not only reduce its reliance on rice imports but also create a niche for its produce in the international market, tapping into the growing global demand for sustainable and ethical products.

The agriculture ministry is working to address these challenges and improve rice production. Initiatives such as providing chain-link fencing, constructing new irrigation canals, and promoting farm mechanisation are underway. The government’s goal of increasing domestic production to 35 percent in the 13th Five-Year Plan is ambitious, but achieving it will require time and concerted efforts.

Beyond the agricultural realm, Bhutan should explore policies and initiatives that promote food diversification and reduce wastage. Encouraging the consumption of local crops and traditional foods can not only promote healthier diets but also reduce pressure on rice imports.

The issue of Bhutan’s rice dependency is not one to be addressed in isolation; it requires a coordinated effort from various stakeholders, including the government, private sector, civil society, and international partners towards developing a robust and sustainable food system.