Rice imports could be reduced if production of underutilized crops is integrated in the mainstream farming system
Neglected and underutilized crops in Bhutan may fulfill Bhutan’s goal of achieving food security in the years to come.
An advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, Dr. Thimmaiah, said underutilized crops of a country have the potential to achieve food security of that nation.
He said to a large extent the use of underutilized crops has not been fully studied or documented and not fully understood.
Underutilized crops are those which are not in the mainstream food production like millets, local crops, native fruit crops and many more. They are cultivated or wild harvested on a small scale and are an integral part of the culture and heritage of the region.
“These neglected and underutilized crops have the potential to ensure food security of Bhutan,” he said.
Bhutan has a rich biodiversity and using this advantage will not only reduce the pressure on natural resources used for cultivating the main crops but also diversify the nutrition sources.
An example of a neglected crop in Bhutan is the Olochoto (Cyclanthera pedata). “This plant has been in the Bhutanese traditional cooking for a long time but its potential has not been fully understood,” said Dr. Thimmaiah.
Globally more than 80% of the food requirement is met by merely 15 major crops. “Since these crops constitute the major food requirement, emphasis like research and development programs are given to only these crops,” he said.
“To achieve food security we should look at these neglected and underutilized crops, possibly by integrating them into the existing farming system,” he added.
He said Olochoto can be easily cultivated, needs less water and has minimal pest infestation unlike water guzzling crops like rice.
Bhutan imports a large quantity of rice to meet the daily demands. Dr. Thimmaiah said this can be reduced by at least replacing one meal of rice by other foods which are not in the main stream of Bhutanese delicacies.
Citing an example, he said, if one Bhutanese consumes approximately 200 grams of rice a meal then it would come to six kilograms of rice per person a month. In a year it amounts to 73 kilograms of rice per person. And taking the total population of Bhutan as 7, 00,000 people, the total amount or rice consumed in a meal by the whole country will be 50 million kilograms.
“So, if we replace one meal of every Bhutanese by the neglected and underutilized crops, we are saving 50 million kilograms of rice a year,” said Dr Thimmaiah, adding that even a modest 50% of the assumed quantity of the rice will have a huge impact on food security.
These neglected crops can be integrated in the Bhutanese cuisine. For example, Olochoto can be cultivated easily in Bhutan and also provides a source of food and income to the farmers.
In Bhutan, Olochoto is cooked with cheese and chilies but has hardly made into the main stream of Bhutanese cuisines. Dr. Thimmaiah said Bhutanese have to integrate all those underutilized crops as their mainstream food to reduce pressure on rice and other main crops.
However, the availability of seeds is one of the problems. Farmers who cultivate these crops have an informal seed sharing system and it is difficult to find seeds in the open market.
“The most important aspect in these underutilized crops is developing appropriate gastronomy with innovative cuisines to popularize them. I have tried stuffing the Olochoto with potato and it tastes very good and the method of preparation is very simple,” he said.
An organization based in Malaysia called the Crops for Future (CFF) is also actively involved in the promotion of neglected and underutilized crops. CFF facilitates access to knowledge and create awareness on these potential crops for the benefit of the poor.
This organization helps promote greater consumption and production of neglected and underutilized crops, increase income for agriculture producers and processors and enhance nutrition through dietary diversity.
In Bhutan, the conservation and documentation of biodiversity is undertaken by the National Biodiversity Center under agriculture and forest ministry.
“It is equally important to create awareness on production, use, nutritional benefits and support market development for the neglected and underutilized crops,” said Dr. Thimmaiah.