A decline in cultivated land has resulted in Bhutan losing more than 31,300 tons of rice in the last two decades, which could have otherwise fed one-fifth of the total population for a year.
The country is 47 percent rice self-sufficient.
According to Yadunath Bajgai (PhD), principal research officer with Agriculture Research Development Centre, Yusipang, the decline is due to the decrease in cultivated land from about 28,000 hectares in 1981 to 20,547 hectares in 2017.
The yield per hectare in 1981 stood little over 2.2 tons and the productivity doubled to 4.2 tons per hectares in 2017 despite the loss of cultivated land over this period.
The average yield doubled because of innovation in varietal development, crop nutrient management and plan protection according to the researcher.
“Although productivity doubled over this period, our rice self-sufficiency stands at 47 percent,” he said. “We have forgone quite a lot of rice because of decline in the cultivated area. Yadunath Bajgai shared his paper on investment and innovation in agriculture at the opening of Bhutan Lectures on Innovation, Science and Society (BLISS) on December 3.
Loss of prime rice growing area to infrastructure and town development, insufficient irrigation water, pressing human-wildlife conflict and shortage of farm labour among others were cited as reasons that pushed farmers to leave their lands fallow.
He said that the country is only three percent self-sufficient in edible oil despite enjoying good resource and energy and said intervention and investments were urgent in the production of edible oils.
A likely cause of these consequences was because of a decline in the fiscal budget allocation to RNR. Budget allocation to the sector dropped from 23 percent in the fourth Plan to seven percent in the fifth Plan. “This could have also led to a decrease in the share of RNR GDP contribution,” he said.
From about 37 percent of the RNR sector’s contribution to GDP in 1981, the percentage of GDP share from RNR sectors dropped to 17 percent in 2016.
The highest percentage of budget share RNR sectors received after the fifth Plan was in the seventh Plan at 16 percent. The lowest budget was allocated during the 10th at 5.6 percent and in the 11th Plan at 6.3 percent.
Other challenges involved in agriculture are decline in soil fertility, mainly the loss of phosphorus in the soil, climate change and a loss of focus on agricultural development research like the dissolution of the council of RNR research of Bhutan in 2016.
“RNR sector will face the biggest blow. Suitable crops of today may not be suitable in some ten years. Investment in agriculture research development should begin now because it takes more than ten years to develop new varieties,” Yadunath Bajgai said.
The research urged policymakers and stakeholders to reconsider and reprioritise food production and agriculture as key development agenda.
Labour shortage, crop damage by wild animals, insufficient irrigation supply, and limited access to markets among others are top four farming constraints faced by the agriculture in the country today.
He said there is a need to invest more in agriculture research and development on a priority basis, build human resource, mechanise food production, diversify agro-ecology and marketing among others.
Rice constitutes 53 percent of daily dietary energy requirement for Bhutanese. Bhutan cultivates rice on 53,055 acres and produces 85,090MT.
Today, the country has less than three percent of total land cultivated and about 57 percent of people depend on agriculture for food.
Some enablers that led to increased productivity were the construction of 1,718 km of irrigation channels at the end of the 11th Plan, distribution of 1,200 power tillers, 11,196 km of farm roads and 18,691 km of electricity fencing among others.