Growing food in Bhutan has always been difficult. If what we grew was considered sufficient, it was because we didn’t have to feed many mouths. What was grown in the backyard and dried for the winter was enough.
Demand has changed. So have taste and, therefore, the issues of not having enough, especially vegetables, during the dry winter months. Because we could rely on cheap and abundant supplies from the warmer plains of Assam and Bengal in India, until it was found unsafe for consumption, we have not ventured into winter crops on a huge or commercial scale.
The ban of import of a few varieties of vegetables, especially the indispensable chilli, jolted us. It was an opportunity to let people return to the farm, including university graduates looking for jobs. Buoyed by policies of import substitution and job creation, it was seen as a good source of income. Commercial farming became the catchphrase. The policy of food self-sufficiency provided the fuel behind the drive.
Plans were made, policies were framed, and incentives were worked out. However, as we go through the worst time in terms of food shortage, as imports are banned, we are learning there are more challenges than solutions.
Many along the southern foothills wanted to make the most of the opportunity. The government through its ministries, departments, divisions, centres and field extension offices are trying to help farmers reap the benefits and ensure reliable supply. All, it seems, now are looking for solutions to the never-ending challenges. Early or late monsoon, shortage of water, excessive cold or heat and pests are not letting our farmers grow food.
There is not much we could with nature’s vagaries. Science has come to the help. Agriculture experts tried new varieties, hybrid or high yielding. But it seems we need to do more.
With problems identified, the solutions have to come fast. Research and development is one area that needs to be stepped up. We have some and we had been successful in some areas. Our parents, who bartered butter with rice, were shocked when highland communities started growing rice. Rice, even if not the staple of the highland people, is grown because of the introduction of cold resistant rice varieties. It wouldn’t be surprising if one day the vast highland plains become the rice bowl of Bhutan.
Agriculture is the oldest industry in Bhutan. It received the highest priority in many of the Five-Year Plans. It should have been the most developed sector. The focus so far, perhaps, has been on infrastructure development. Changing times now calls for research and development, agriculture technology and science. Only this seems to be the viable solution, at least on the production side.
Agriculture as a business can only be profitable if there are markets. The pandemic has shown us the risk of dependence, not only on the production side, but also in distribution and fair market price. The irony during the winter lockdown was surplus products not reaching the needy. Farmers will only intensify production if they need not feed the surplus to cattle.
Going by reports, three Cs, lack of coordination, collaboration, and communication has hampered distribution. This is an easier challenge to resolve. The 12th Plan had coordination and collaboration, besides consolidation, as its guiding principle. The current vegetable shortage or surplus issue should be a good example of how big our silos are.