…the country saw an average annual decline of 11 percent

YK Poudel

Bhutan’s rice production saw an average annual decline of 11 percent – 26,680 metric tonnes (MT) of rice in 2022 compared to 41,520MT in 2018, according to the Department of Agriculture (DoA).

In past the five years, the rice self-sufficiency rate (SSR) dropped from 40.8 percent to 25.2 percent in 2022-2023.

Chief of Agriculture Research and Innovation Division, DoA, Rinzin Wangchuk said that the decrease in rice production has affected the SSR. The increase in rice import and population have also been attributed to the decline in SSR.

“While there has been no empirical study conducted on the rice consumption pattern in the country, it is estimated that per capita rice consumption in Bhutan is approximately 150kg per year,” he said.

The land under paddy cultivation has been decreasing every year with an average annual decrease of 11 percent between 2018 and 2022. In 2022, the total harvested area is 22,683 acres as compared to 37,268 acres in 2018. “The total cultivable land in the country is about 2.6 percent of the total land area,” he said.

Multiple factors, he said, contributed to variations in a country’s rice self-sufficiency rate such as inadequate irrigation infrastructure, farm labour scarcity, crop damage by wildlife and natural calamities, low government investment in rice commodity development and shrinking wetland.

The government, in 2019, initiated the ambitious goal of becoming the world’s first 100 percent organic nation by 2020 to make agriculture more sustainable and establish a resilient productive organic farming system while preserving the environment with an investment of Nu 650 million. The deadline has been deferred to 2035 through National Organic Programme.

However, agriculture officials said that the National Organic Flagship Programme includes working on organic commodities such as high-value, niche and naturally grown crops (ginger, cardamom, turmeric, buckwheat, and herbs) and rice production is not included under the programme.

The government is undertaking programmes such as construction of new irrigation schemes, supplying chain-link and electric fencing on a cost-sharing basis, supporting improved seeds, implementing plant protection technologies, land development, and improving farm mechanisation, and research and development.

“Due to the intervention by the department, the productivity of paddy has been increasing every year. The productivity of paddy has increased from 1.6 to 1.8MT per acre within the past 5 years,” Rinzin Wangchuk said.

The department through dzongkhag and gewog agriculture offices provides training for farmers to educate them about Climate Smart Agricultural practices such as drought-resistant crop production, soil conservation, and efficient water management techniques.

According to DoA, ensuring that farmers have access to up-to-date climate information is crucial. The National Centre for Hydrology and Meteorology provides weather forecasts and climate data to farmers, helping them make informed decisions.

As per Bhutan Trade Statistics 2021 and 2022, the country exported 1.41MT of rice in contrast it imported 68,376 MT of rice. Similarly, last year Bhutan exported 9 MT of rice while it imported 79,317MT rice.

A lecturer at the College of Natural Resources and former rice specialist at DoA, Mahesh Ghimiray argued in his recent article that the current 4 percent wetland (chhuzhing) with about 25,000 acres of the total 3 percent cultivated land is grossly inadequate to grow enough food. “Government must do more than lip service to agriculture and rice farming.”

“Two of the most urgent initiatives are to firstly provide a policy framework for conservation of rice landscapes backed by legal enactment and enforcement, and secondly facilitate the establishment of a professional rice company that can provide employment and food for ourselves,” he said.

Bhutanese farmers have been cultivating native rice varieties that are tall, and low-yielding, but well adapted to their local environment for many centuries. Some farmers have switched to growing high-yielding varieties in irrigated paddy fields in the past few decades.

According to NSB report, a total of 40,745MT of irrigated paddy was harvested in 2022. This was 2 percent (664 MT) more than what was produced in 2021.

The report states that, with increasing urbanization and rapid socio-economic development, increasing amounts of prime paddy wetland are being lost— harvested production of paddy is observed to decrease. “Furthermore, agricultural holders are taking up more economically viable, less labour and resources intensive crops over paddy cultivation on wetland.”

Reports have observed that despite interventions by the government to enhance paddy productivity, paddy growers in the country still face overwhelming challenges eventually leading to the gradual decrease in harvest area.

The country had 23,327 paddy growers, compared to 25,336 in 2021—a decrease of 8 percent.