October 18, 2012
Reposted from Kuensel
Had Bhutan sown the seeds of food security a decade ago, it could perhaps be reaping the fruits now.
But since that did not happen, with investment in development prioritised over agriculture, and food habits changing, the country that once bartered rice, now imports about 50 percent of it from India to meet the requirements.
Which is why, department of agriculture officials said the per capita consumption of rice at about 140kg a person a year in Bhutan is one of the highest in the world, today.
However, food self-sufficiency for the overall cereal basket is 71 percent, according to the prime minister’s state of the nation report. “It means that we meet 71 percent of the food requirement, and the rest are imported,” explained agriculture officials. “We can almost be sufficient in cereals, but it’s the food preference that’s making us import.”
Realising that maintaining food and nutrition security corresponds to national security for a small and landlocked country vulnerable to geo-economic conditions, the draft food and nutrition security policy, 2012, states that food insecurity is one of the causes for poverty in Bhutan.
It states that 5.9 percent (37,329) of the population lives below the food poverty line of Nu 688.96/p/m (PAR, 2007.)
As Bhutan observed world food day yesterday, with agriculture cooperatives as the key to ‘feed the world,’ theme, observations were also made on Bhutan’s (in)ability to feed its own people with domestic production, given its growing dependence on imports.
Last year, Bhutan spent almost Rs 4B on agricultural imports, which comprise meat items, dairy products, coffee, tea, rice, edible oil and sugar. It imported meat worth Rs 629.3M and dairy products worth Rs 669.8M.
Agriculture officials said they were not able to “substitute imports” so far, because the agriculture sector has not received the kind of attention it deserved, especially in terms of resources.
“Agriculture wasn’t a priority, policies are biased towards conservation, and efforts were made to make subsistence farming more efficient,” an agriculture official said. “We debated a lot, but agriculture ministry lost when other sectors said they’ll sell hydropower and buy food for the country.”
Urbanisation came at the cost of agriculture, agriculture officials said, and when non-farming population came to urban centres, Bhutan started importing food.
In a research paper, called ‘Growth Crisis in the Bhutanese Agriculture Sector: An Exploratory Analysis of the Causes, Royal Thimphu College’s Prof Sanjeev Mehta said agriculture sector, which contributes to about two-thirds of total employment in Bhutan, has been rapidly decelerating since 1990.
The paper, which was shared at a recent international conference, states that, within the agriculture sector, the most concerning issue is the actual decline in the production of major food grains. “Decline in the production of food grain, when population and income is increasing, imply declining per capita food grain production and its adverse impact on food security,” Prof Mehta said.
Prof Mehta observed that, given the increasingly marginal role that agriculture sector is playing in contributing to overall growth, “the tenth five year plan objective of reducing the poverty rate to 15 percent is unlikely to be achieved”, as it is based on the premise of growth target of 4 percent for the agriculture sector. The target growth rate, he said, is significantly higher than the trend growth rate in the last decade.
Even though agriculture may not have received the attention it deserved from policy makers, Bhutan is still known as an agrarian country, for more than 60 percent of its population depend on this sector for livelihood, said officials.
Which is why they said it’s “still not late” to start investing in agriculture and, following the Rupee crunch, some moves have been made in the country.
The nationwide drive to become self sufficient in vegetables, diary products and reduce rice imports, for example, is the way forward for Bhutan, said officials.
Bhutan should commercialise agriculture, make it attractive, invest in irrigation, make credit accessible to farmers and involve private sectors to make Bhutan food secure.
“In terms of population resources ratio, we’re good,” an official said. “And, if we start now, and if everything goes as planned, we might be able to reduce our rice imports by 20 percent in 10-15 years.”
Agriculture secretary Sherub Gyaltshen said government should and has always realised that investing in agriculture is important and Bhutan is “comfortable” in its food self sufficiency ‘in a way.’
“Our government has always been investing, may be the share of investment in agriculture compared to other sectors has perhaps come down but in absolute terms, there has been increase all the time,” he said. “The ministry’s mandate is access to food, but when it comes to ability to buy, it’s not only the ministry’s mandate.”
The secretary said that even though Bhutan has a small population and a friendly neighbour, it should always aspire to be able to produce its own food. “Vegetables, we can be self sufficient and there is no doubt about it but our cost of production is higher and therefore the imports become a necessity sometimes.”
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