Pandemic triggers development of agriculture sector 

Choki Wangmo

The Covid-19 pandemic has given the agriculture sector a renewed energy to achieve self-sufficiency and import substitution goals through increased production.

With the support of the agriculture ministry, more than 66,000 acres of fallow land is expected to be cultivated to meet the domestic demand for vegetables.

Urban and peri-urban agriculture programme in and around Thimphu engaged 22 groups comprising of 87 members who were provided with land development services, vegetable seeds/seedlings, organic manure, electric fencing and agriculture tools worth over Nu 0.5M.

The government fast-tracked the implementation of 12th Plan activities and wherever possible frontloaded the investments. Amongst others, revitalising the rural economy, and creating employment opportunities were given emphasis and the focus sectors include agriculture.

With a total budget of Nu 944M, agriculture stimulus plan aims to strengthen food security through domestic production while creating employment and income opportunities.

From April to June, Nu 160M was spent to involve farmers and corporate farms in large-scale production of selected food commodities such as cereals, pulses, oilseed, vegetables, milk, egg, and meat.

The government is now focused on producing winter vegetables in the southern dzongkhags with tomatoes and onions as mandatory crops.

The ministry’s aim is to produce more than 10,000MT of vegetables this winter.

Through winter chilli production initiative, in the last three years, the overall cultivation expanded from 272 acres in 2017 to 799 acres in 2019, according to Agriculture Research and Development Highlights 2019-2020.

Although the 100 percent organic target has been pushed to 2035, through the National Organic Flagship Programme, certification and standardisation of organic products is underway.

In the current fiscal year, the programme’s focus is on production of quinoa, buckwheat, ginger, turmeric, cardamom, asparagus, mushroom, beans, cauliflower, and chilli in the fiscal year on 1,000 acres of land. With a budget of Nu 1 billion, the programme looks at enhancing and commercialising organic farming for socioeconomic development through sustainable production of safe and nutritious foods.

National Centre for Organic Agriculture and the National Seed Centre were registered as the first organic centres last month. The ministry also released new crop varieties for quality and increased production. Towards nutrition security and enhancing household income, 99 mixed fruits orchards have been established that supports 98 households.

Healthy Drukyul, an initiative of Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering, seeks to promote balanced dietary habits and healthy lifestyle.

Vegetable import has been decreasing over the years. Bhutan imported 10,455MT of vegetables last year, 7,400MT less compared with import figure of the previous year.

According to the records with the ministry, Bhutan exported 1,632.94MT of agricultural produce worth Nu 59.75 M between October 25 and 31. The biggest export was from Gelephu with over 1,445MT of vegetables, including potatoes, cardamom, and areca nut worth over Nu 51M.

But the progress, however, is not without challenges. With the border closure due to the pandemic, farmers suffered major crop damage without export mechanism in place. For example, in Wanakha and Zursuna in Paro, cabbages went bad because of export restriction.

Although the government pledged to double the effort to promote cooperative farming by providing necessary support such as credit, logistics, storage and transportation facilities, the borrowers were left frustrated as the National Cottage and Small Industries bank failed to give loans after months.

The  Royal Civil service Commission recommended the dissolution of the Department of Agricultural Marketing and Cooperatives twice due to duplication of roles. Without improvement in its roles over the years, the farmers and youth cooperatives are left at the mercy of middlemen.

Marketing and value addition have received little attention. Although the country has the potential for value addition, the experts say that the country’s buy-back scheme has been a failure and should adopt impact-investment model.

At the end of the current Plan, the growth in the agriculture sector ought to witness 3.01 percent. The agriculture ministry has been allocated a total budget of 13,947.17M.

Livestock

According to Department of Livestock, in the fiscal year 2019- 2020 dairy self-sufficiency stands at 93 percent, meat self-sufficiency at 44.95 percent, egg self-sufficiency at 100 percent, and wet fish self-sufficiency at 24 percent.

To achieve the production targets for the year 2019-2020, 6,205 artificial inseminations were performed and 1,866 progenies were born—success rate of 30.1 percent. About 4,000 piglets were produced from government nucleus farms and 5,000 from contract breeding farms. In total, 9,000 piglets were distributed to the farmers for pork production.

In the poultry and fishery sectors, 230,507 day-old layer chicks and 712,390 day-old broiler chicks, 1.8M high quality warm water fingerlings were distributed to the farming communities in the country to enhance meat production.

Due to lack of refrigerated vans, blast freezers, cold storage, and improper processing facilities in the dzongkhags, Bhutan Livestock Development Corporation Limited disposed of 13,000 kgs of chicken during the lockdown.

 

Way forward

Agriculture Minister Yeshey Penjor in an earlier interview said that Bhutan could change marketing strategies and sustain the increased interest in agriculture triggered by the current pandemic.

The ministry is proposing demand-driven production whereby the farmers produce products that are in high demand in the market.

He said that agricultural products in the country were supply-driven where people work to increase production on their small farms and then sell or auction the surplus at a lower price.

For that change, Lyonpo said,  Bhutan should diversify the products through value addition so that there is a wider market for Bhutanese products.

To retain people in the villages as suggested by the local government leaders, the ministry would also strengthen farm mechanisation in the rural areas, he said.

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