In agriculture-dependent Bhutan, the concept of father on the plough and mother in the kitchen has changed. An so has farming in the country. The current trend is that the father will look for odd jobs, bring in cash while the mother tends to the farm. This is amplified with the male in the family finding jobs in urban areas, sometimes at the cost of livelihoods and family.
It is, therefore, not surprising when a report found that almost 60 percent of employed women were active in agriculture compared with 34 percent of men. The report is of 2017, but we can conclude that the trend has not reversed. When we talk about sustainable agriculture and women, the trend is visible. It is not so much about knowledge in agriculture, but the pressure from development that is directly impacting agriculture, the mainstay of our economy.
Agriculture is not profitable. It is associated with drudgery and any opportunity outside the sector is seen as an improvement or progress. Agriculture is still an important sector, especially in terms of employment. While other sectors are receiving the attention, agriculture will still remain an important sector. In fact, if we can draw the attention of policymakers to agriculture, it could be the best bet. The Covid-19 pandemic proved it when the concern became food, home grown, and not luxury.
We say that Bhutan is an agrarian society with more than half the population are dependent on agriculture. Unfortunately, the importance given to agriculture is dwindling, if not disappearing. This is evident from the sector’s contribution to the gross domestic economy. The contribution of agriculture to the gross domestic product was 45.1 percent in 1981. Today it is today between 12-15 percent.
The poorest are in the agriculture sector, a sector that was the backbone of our economy for decades. The focus on hydropower, tourism, service sector or construction, has blinded us in listing our priorities. Except in a few dzongkhags, the way we farm has not changed. The drudgery associated with agriculture is driving people out of the sector. Men, as the stronger sex, is needed on the farms. Mechanisation was recognised as an answer, but this has not happened except in a few places. While we are quick to blame the topography, we are not exploring technology because the sector is not as attractive as the manufacturing or service sector that attracts a lot of young people.
Not investing in agriculture or not recognising it has a ripple effect. When farms are abandoned, it leads to increased human-wildlife conflict and crop predation. When it is not mechanised, it forces the young and the able to look for odd jobs beyond the villages. When necessities like water are scarce, people abandon farms. The grand visions and speeches of organic Bhutanese products are forgotten after the five-star hotel meals are served with imported ingredients.
At the core of our policy is food self-sufficiency. Ironically, agriculture has taken the backstage, as sectors that brings quick returns dominate the priorities. There is nothing wrong in exploring other sectors as the drivers of economic growth, but we cannot neglect agriculture.
The pandemic has reminded us that even as we chase for quick returns, agriculture, the oldest industry, is the best alternative. If it is to attract thousands of unemployed, achieve food self-sufficiency and make it attractive, we have to invest in agriculture. Investment here is about research, technology and infrastructure. For our wisdom says that if we can grow food, we will never go hungry.