Over the last few weeks, thousands of birds died and farmers lost their income as their poultry business crumbled overnight. The vendors capitalised on the shortage; prices of eggs skyrocketed as high as Nu 750 per tray which is equivalent to the price of the already inflated price of two kgs of meat. Worse of all, now other farmers whose income is dependent on dairy farming looms around the same fate. Their animals either became ill, died or reduced the milk by a significant quantity.  This happened because our farmers are dependent on a single source of food for their animals – Karma Feed. The rippling effect was felt immediately. The market ran out of eggs and other dairy products will follow the suit. Unless we put an end to such a commercial monopoly, we might face worse situations in future.

Article 7 (1) of our Constitution guarantees the “right to life” as a fundamental right.  Right to food is an essential component of the right to life. Right to life goes beyond mere existence but life with access to affordable nutritious food, not just food to survive. The recent incidents of Karma Feed essentially threatened the fundamentals of the right to food for many, the farmers as well as the consumers. When things become exorbitantly expensive, our people, comprising mostly the poorer sections of society are forced to compromise on the quality of the food they eat. Right to life is linked to article 9 where the state is obligated to frame policies to “ensure a good quality of life.” Good quality of life does not mean a luxury life but about being able to afford all necessities including a nutritious diet.  As an agro-based economy, we must protect the livelihood of the farmer as well.

Having only one industry as a single source of animal feed in the country undoubtedly defeats the spirits of our constitution. The Constitution mandates the state to prevent commercial monopolies and build a “fair market competition.” We have relied too much on Karma Feed and when a simple disaster happens, it caused an enormous disturbance in our entire food supply system. While they provided some compensation to affected farmers, consumers continue to suffer from this sudden supply shortage.

Vendors play a major role in food prices particularly agricultural produce in the country.  Due to the lack of any legal mechanism to regulate the vendors, they have posed a serious threat to the concept of the fair market. Instead of fair and competitive prices, whenever there is a supply reduction at the source, these vendors inflate the prices.

Bhutan is also a member of UN Sustainable Development Goals of which Goal 2 is to zero hunger. FAO recommends that to address food scarcity, improve nutrition and food security, a “cooperative approach by the public, private and non-profit sectors, underpinned by a whole-of-government strategy” is pivotal to food security. It helps to ensure “access to essential support when and where it is needed most.”

This is just one example, and we learnt the hard way.  It is time the state must explore how to diversify the business of animal feed through tax incentives, regulatory assistance and financial incentives such as better access to loans and financial services. Otherwise, while we recognize agriculture as our heartbeat of the national economy besides hydropower and tourism, we will let this heartbeat stop slowly and painfully.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.