A long way to go before achieving food self-sufficiency

Bhutan imported food commodities twice the value of export last year

The country’s dream to achieve food self-sufficiency will be easier said than done going by the Bhutan Trade Statistics showing the values of food imported and exported last year.

According to trade statistics, food import value has doubled that of export, meaning Bhutan imported food commodities twice the value of export last year.

Bhutan has around 7.8% arable land of which only 2.93% are under cultivation.

However, the Chief Planning Officer with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF), Kencho Thinley, said Bhutan has sufficient cultivable land to meet the mean food products.

“However, limited budget remains one of the main problems for the ministry to develop agricultural sector,” he added.

Meanwhile, a total of Nu 3.05bn budget has been allocated for the ministry of agriculture and forests in the 12th Five Year Plan, a decline from the total budget outlay of Nu 9.45bn proposed by the ministry. The budget allocation for the agriculture sector has been declining since the 7th FYP.

And although people from farming background are aware of the wetland and their benefits, Kencho Thinley said, “It is difficult to retain urban wetlands. In rural areas, road construction and other activities cause wetland fragmentation.”

“Another challenge is insufficient incentives for rice farming as it is cheaper to buy than to produce rice. Wet land conversion to other land use and urbanization are emerging challenges in Bhutan,” he added.

Furthermore, he said lack of skills to adopt modern agricultural technologies, underdeveloped infrastructure such as irrigation and road, scarcity of traders, loss of agricultural lands to development and rural-urban migration are the main reasons for the slow agricultural growth.

“Bhutan being a mountainous country, she faces the challenges to grow enough food for an increasing population,” the CPO said.

The challenges hindering growth in the agricultural sector include developmental activities like infrastructure development, shortage of irrigation water, human-wildlife conflicts and limited access to markets.

According to the Bhutan Trade Statistics maintained by the finance ministry, the country imported food items worth about Nu 8bn in nine months (January to September) last year and exported food worth a little over Nu 3bn.

It is also shown that Bhutan’s trade deficit has been increasing over the years. The country’s total trade deficit was almost Nu 18bn within the first six months of 2018, while it was Nu 29.7bn in 2017 and Nu 32.10bn in 2016.

However, the country experienced a trade deficit of more than Nu 32.8bn in 2015, registering a record highest deficit. During that period, Bhutan’s top imports included diesel and choppers, besides rice and other food items.

While the country’s overall food self-sufficiency is around 80%, rice self-sufficiency rate is barely 50%. In nine months last year, the country imported around Nu 1.27bn worth of rice and there are no signs of fall while importing rice.

However, the chief planning officer said the ministry has proposed activities under the different programs that would improve food self-sufficiency and security.

“Agriculture consumes the highest percentage of water and water demand increases due to production intensification to keep pace with food demands of growing population,” he said, adding that irrigation is one of the important activities for agriculture.

“About four irrigation projects are ongoing, while 26 irrigation schemes are ready with designs and plans. Almost 25% of the total arable land (wetland) is assured irrigation. There are over 1,000 irrigation facilities in the country,” he added.

Meanwhile, establishing a network of agriculture marketing centers, supporting employment in agriculture and enhancing agriculture products are found as solutions, among others, to improve food self-sufficiency and security and to reduce import.

Jigme Wangchen from Thimphu