An article that appeared in the Kuensel edition of 17 September 2022 titled “Forest conservation have turned self-sufficient Bhutan into a food importing country” is not a fair assessment of why we are not self-sufficient in food. It appeared to me as if forest conservation is the sole reason for Bhutan’s inability to feed its growing population. In order to back up such hair splitting claim, it would be interesting to see some data, if it exists, that forest conservation indeed has turned Bhutan into food insufficient country.
Also there is hardly any authoritative data to suggest that Bhutan was food self-sufficient in the past. On the contrary, even in 1960’s and 70’s when I was growing up in the village in Thimphu, my parents could not feed us properly. During summer months we ran short of rice and had to depend on wheat and barley flour. Sometimes we had to pass day eating only one serving of rice. Those days potato was not popular and our family ate it just occasionally as curry not as staple. Thus, saying that we were food self-sufficient in the past needs more concrete evidence.
Perhaps, the article is a nostalgic reflection about the past when Bhutan’s population was small so that people were satisfied with meagre available food. There was no construction or other development activities where extra mouths needed to be fed in the form of imported labors or other workers. Perhaps with modernization since 1960s numbers of people in Bhutan increased, both with baby boom and imported workers. As a results demand for food increased. Indigenously produced food quantity especially rice and wheat were not sufficient to meet the demand. So there is a pressing need to import food.
In my opinion, when we talk about food insufficiency we have to be very specific which food items we are talking about. For instance, Bhutan is more than self-sufficient if we are ready to eat potato and maize as staple. For staple items like rice and wheat, it is not forest conservation that have caused their insufficiency. The reasons for rice and wheat insufficiency are many and often difficult to attribute to any specific reason probably due to lack of concrete data. However, conversion of arable land for urbanization and other infrastructural development activities may have contributed to decrease in rice and wheat production. For instance, Thimphu valley, part of Paro, Khuruthang and Bajo areas in Punakha and Wangdue were prime rice and winter wheat production areas. But now these areas have turned into concrete jungle depriving farmers in those lands to produce rice, wheat and oil seed crop such as mustard.
Winter wheat is substituted by vegetables and other field cash crops like beans or spices. Also increasing population, increasing import of construction workers, changing food habits with emphasis on rice eating, migration of able working population to urban areas thus causing farm labor shortage and fallowing of arable land could be plausible reasons for insufficient production of rice and wheat or causing increased import of food items.
On technology fronts, unreliable irrigation water in critical food production areas is a bottle neck for increasing rice and wheat production, besides occasional outbreaks of rats, insects and crop diseases. For rice cultivation, weeds are major problem. We still have to search for effective rice weeds management practices other than weedicides which have other negative side effects. Decreasing soil fertility due to continuous cultivation in same area without means to replenish nutrients is a concern for farmers. High yielding rice and wheat varieties suitable for cultivation in complex microenvironmental conditions in Bhutan are lacking or limited. People also blame wild animals for causing problems in food production; but there is a real need for scientific crop losses assessment data to substantiate such claims. Wild animals sometimes are unnecessarily blamed for our inaptitude and inactions in many food production fronts.
Rather than blaming forest conservation, we have to look for solution to produce more food from available arable land. Some of the feasible solutions such as intensification of cultivation with double cropping in suitable environment, proper nutrients, water, pest and post-harvest management practices must be pursued on war footings. There should be focused resources allocation on project mode to increase rice and wheat production. Year round irrigation water for prime agricultural areas such as Sarpang, Samtse, Punakha Wangdue, Samdrukjongkhar must be developed on priority basis. Fallow arable land that are there in many Dzongkhags must be brought under cultivation. Farm labor saving devices must be introduced on priority basis.
Clearing forest for food production is a risky and suicidal proposition especially in a mountainous country like ours. Such proposition invites ecological and environmental disasters such as landslides, flash floods, decreasing ground water recharge thus decreasing water flow for irrigation, drinking and hydropower. Erosion of top soils in barren treeless environment has led to low productivity of crops in many parts of the world. To me those people who propose clearing of forest to increase food production do not understand complex dynamics and interactions of crops, water and environment. It is a simplistic proposition, rather dangerous ones, to solve out food sufficiency problem.