If the devil is in the detail, the agriculture sectors should be scared. The details in the recent renewal natural resources (RNR) statistics, 2021, indicate that our policies are not right or need serious interventions.
The details (data) are in stark contrast to our policies and plans. Achieving food security or food self-sufficiency has been a national priority for decades. While the sector has seen a difference, it has become more important given the uncertainties brought about by climate change, politics, natural disasters and disruption in the global food supply change.
We have, in the recent past, seen how countries can go hungry when supply chain, trade imbalance, bad debt management and global pandemic pull the rug under their feet. As an import-dependent country, we are at greater risk of instability – political or economic.
While successive governments had been preaching about the importance of agriculture, the data contrast policies and plans. For instance, in the last five years, both production and area under cultivation of the two main cereals, paddy and maize in the country have declined. To put into context, between 2017 and 2021, area under maize cultivation has decreased by about 69 percent. Maize is the staple food for roughly half the population. The area under paddy cultivation, the main diet, decreased by more than 50 percent.
In terms of yield, maize production declined from 94,052 metric tonnes (MT) in 2017 to 30,939MT in 2021, down by about 67 percent. Paddy production decreased from 86,385MT to 40,508MT in the last five years.
Worse, even cash crops that are important for earning foreign currency decreased. Apple production declined from 8,039MT in 2017 to 2,324MT as of 2021. It is the same with mandarin, one of Bhutan’s main cash crop exports.
It is said that data help in planning. It provides the basis of prioritizing or strategizing our plans and policies. If it is the case, the agriculture sector needs a re-boost. The data clearly indicate that ground realities are worryingly different.
Declining food production is attributed to natural calamities, pest infestation, lack of fertilizers and the introduction of new varieties that yield less. The reasons are not convincing. Untimely or excess rain, storm or pest could affect yield, but we had good climatic conditions in at least one of the last five years. The positive side is the reasons stated have solutions. Whether it is improving irrigation infrastructure, pest control or mechanization, the solutions are available if we have the right policy and the seriousness to do it.
In the same report, milk and egg production has seen an increase. This could be because of the right intervention and policies. Egg is one food item we are self-sufficient in. It has led to the growth of poultry farms and young entrepreneurs returning to the village to start poultry or dairy farming. The dairy cooperatives with the right support are growing.
Beyond poultry and dairy farming, the rest are in decline. More and more farms are let to fallow as young people leave for greener pastures in the towns and beyond. Farm mechanisation is seen as the solution to the shortage of hand and fallowing fields. It has not succeeded. Farmers are complaining of broken farm machinery or hassles like getting a permit from the gup to get five litres of diesel for their tiller.
If we are to improve agriculture, there have to be more interventions. The RNR statistics are good bases to relook into our policies.