Can we question our food self-sufficiency wish? My Opinion Piece for Kuensel (July 6th 2019 Issue)

A recent editorial in Kuensel titled “A stunted agriculture sector” grabbed my attention, just because we have been trying to achieve food self-sufficiency since the establishment of the agriculture sector in the country in 1961 together with the commencement of the first five-year plan in 1961. Similarly, an opinion piece by the former Secretary of the Ministry of Work and Human Settlement, Chencho Norbu, titled “The changing landscape of Paro valley” in Kuensel on March 9, 2019, articulates how the lush paddy fields of Paro valley changed. These two pieces, that came up recently, is just the tip of an iceberg, for Bhutan have been struggling to produce enough grains, edible oils, and livestock products for our own consumption.

Rice can be a classic example for it is the staple diet for Bhutanese and the ‘numbers’ on rice imports and produced are not encouraging. Bhutan’s “Annual Statistical Year Book 2018”, shows that, in 2017, we produced about 86,386 MT of rice and imported an almost equal quantity of rice: about 78,449 MT. Like-wise, reading through our agriculture statistics shows the wide range of foods we import. However, it isn’t the diverse products we import that’s alarming, but the quantity we import. Let’s say almost all the food that we have in our stores have been flown-in from other counties contributing to the global food-chain carbon footprint. So much for a ‘least-developed’ country and a highly ‘pro-claimed’ carbon negative country. Having said that, do we have a choice? Can we achieve food self-sufficiency?

Being in the “heart” of the Himalayas, Bhutan does not have agriculture friendly geography. According to the Land Use and Land Cover assessment of Bhutan 2016 undertaken by Forest Resources and Management Division, Department of Forests and Park Services, only 2.75% of our area is cultivated (maybe it is cultivable) agriculture land. This means that about 57% of Bhutanese, who are employed in agriculture activities, are depending on just 2.75% of our land. Well, there is nothing we could do for scanty agriculture land, but what is alarming is, of this 2.75% of our agriculture land, 39% and 10% of potential drylands and wetlands were left fallow in 2016, according to the Bhutan RNR Statistics 2016. These number tells us that, already scare agriculture lands are left fallow and empirical evidence from Bhutan and elsewhere suggests that fallow land brings in vegetation cover triggering the whole new level of problem: human-wildlife conflict. Well, it is now trendy to refer to it as human-human conflict instead of human-wildlife conflict and that’s a whole new story for the next piece.

2017 Population and Housing Census of Bhutan (2017PHCB) reported, labour shortage; human-wildlife conflict and water shortage/irrigation as the top 3 cited reasons for leaving the land fallow by Bhutanese farmers. Intriguingly, all these reasons are linked: labour shortage is due to rural-urban migration, which is triggered by unbalanced regional development, which leads to fallow lands. Fallow land brings vegetation closer to farms, which brings wild animals closer to existing farmlands. It is an irony that, while we celebrate for having 71% of forest cover [and increasing], we are losing some portion of our agricultural lands for forests. However, this is just a small part of the story, for, we lost prime agriculture lands of Paro and Thimphu to urban expansion.

In the front of the Water, Food and Agriculture Organization, AQUASTAT data ranks Bhutan 6th in the world for renewable internal freshwater resources per capita at 100,475.50 cubic meters. Though we have one of the highest freshwaters per capita in the world, our farmers and households are grappling with drinking water shortage let-alone irrigation water. We are seriously going wrong somewhere, even with the existence of many organizations in various ministries looking after water.

Now, let’s shift gear and look at the “national issue” – rural-urban migration (as reflected in the 2017PHCB). We have one of the highest rates of rural-urban migration in south-east Asia and one of the most important and often talked about, but a lot ‘over-looked’ drivers leading to it could be the myth of ‘easy’ life in urban centers and employment opportunities. This probably should be the ENOUGH reason, for us, to strategize (not relocating ministries from Thimphu to other dzongkhags) and make our rural areas attractive. Given our rich forest cover and biodiversity, enhancing the eco-tourism project could be one potential area, together with making our roads commuter-friendly to make our rural areas liveable. One of the important aspects of agriculture friendly infrastructure: farm roads have reached almost all parts of our country, now all that it demands is to keep it safe and automobile friendly. Make our rural areas “liveable”.

With continued efforts of our agriculture sector and our ever hardworking farmers, we can still dream of achieving food self-sufficiency. However, since, it isn’t unusual for our farmers to not find a market for their farm products during ‘season’, investing in the environment-friendly storage area is, now, a call of our time. It is also about time for us to seriously venture into post-harvest management strategies together with investing in marketing infrastructure for our farm produce. Our agriculture sector has been working on improved varieties of crops from day one, and sure enough, we now have some good varieties of food and fruit crops.

Given the scarcity of agricultural land, it will be worth it for us to invest in the fast-growing and producing higher yield varieties of crops together with stress-tolerant varieties. However, the important question that demands answer still lingers in the minds of our farmers – losing all the ‘fruits’ of their hard-work to wild animals and weather anomalies, which will be frequent at the pace with which climate change is hitting us. Wildlife insurance scheme may not necessarily work, as it didn’t earlier too, and there is evidence elsewhere of its failure. The best we could do is relax our conservation policies on “pest” animals, make our forests animal-friendly and nip the drivers of farm marginalization. Once again, I say, make our rural areas LIVEABLE.

Well, it is easier said than done!

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Ngawang Chhogyel – PhD Candidate, University of New England, Australia [Dy. Chief Agriculture Offcier, DoA, MoAF] and Tashi Dhendup – Wildlife Biologist [Sr. Forestry Officer, UWICER, DoFPS, MoAF] for reviewing the first draft of this opinion piece.


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