Will Bhutan undergo a food crisis?

The key factors contributing to food insecurity in Bhutan are decreased access to nutritious foods, reduced purchasing power, and an increasing cost of living

The impact of the global crisis – due to conflict and climate shocks, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, rising costs, and unsustainable food systems – will likely impact Bhutan’s food security, as is the case globally.

According to the World Economic Forum in May, millions of people around the world are on the brink of starvation. Over the past two years, the number of acutely food insecure people has almost tripled from 135mn to 345mn.

However, the Ukraine conflict and increasing costs of food, fuel, and fertilizer have contributed to an ongoing global food crisis.

In Bhutan, the prices of consumer goods and services increased by 6.5% from June 2021 to June 2022, according to the Bhutan Consumer price index. There is a risk of heightening inequalities and vulnerabilities.

During the World Economic Forum this year, the global economy is facing a dire food shortage added to the Russia-Ukraine war and the current scenario in South Asia.

The working-age population of Asia and the Pacific is under pressure; denied decent work opportunities and highly vulnerable to systemic shocks such as pandemics or economic downturns, finds a new report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

Asian Food and Agriculture Cooperation Initiative (AFACI) recently concluded its sixth General Assembly and shared concerns on food security. Bhutan is no exception to this threat.

It was observed that the key factors contributing to food insecurity in Bhutan are decreased access to nutritious foods, reduced purchasing power, and an increasing cost of living.

“Over the past decades, despite increased production of key commodities, such as fruits and vegetables, and continued support to local farmers, the imports of both essential and non-essential food items have witnessed exponential growth,” WFP observed.

Further, the development in the Renewable Natural Resources sector has not been able to keep pace with these rapid changes in social structure and consumption patterns. Specific and targeted investments and interventions are required to transform the agriculture sector into a sector that would contribute to a self-reliant economy.

It states that this can be achieved with coherent and methodical interventions along the value chain, from farm to table, using the food systems approach. Flagship interventions are required in the areas of improving infrastructures such as roads and irrigation; improving and strengthening supply chain systems like the distribution of seeds, fertilizers, and technology; strengthening post-harvest technology, and market information and system development; strengthening research and extension services; diversifying agricultural loans and credits, and investing in adaptation and mitigation works to address climate risks.

In addition, the Royal Government’s National School Feeding and Nutrition Programme is a commendable example, providing social assistance to 100,000 school children through nutritious school meals.

“Most of these schools are linked to farmers and cooperatives, providing access to one-seventh of the food market. Scaling up such initiatives will boost agricultural production, and create room for a sustainable food system while creating diversity and addressing the nutritional requirements of the children, their families, and the communities.

What WFP in Bhutan is doing and going to do?

WFP Bhutan focuses on ending hunger, improving nutrition, food security and production, ensuring climate-resilient and sustainable food systems, disaster risk management, country capacity strengthening, and policy coherence.

WFP employs a strategic systems approach to climate-resilient agriculture development and is investing USD 7mn in supporting the Royal Government across the agriculture value chain.

WFP’s assistance, implemented through various programs and activities, will increase demand for local food, strong production capacity, and post-harvest management, including marketing, knowledge management, and cost efficiency whilst contributing to coordination and policy. WFP’s assistance aims to transform resources into tangible development results.

In adapting to the Bhutan national pathway for agriculture development and the new RNR Strategy 2030, WFP’s assistance includes supporting rural women’s economic empowerment, emerging cooperatives, youth, and private sector enterprises. WFP is also providing enhanced digital market information and contract services to smallholder farmers and buyers.

Through a series of targeted programs, capacity-building training, data, and systems strengthening, field activity support, and technical assistance, WFP intends to raise rural household income, create additional jobs, increase the value and volume of sales, increase the proportion of local produce in school meals, improve dietary diversity, production of nutritious crops, and link farm products to viable markets.

Next year, the Building Resilient Commercial Smallholder Agriculture (BRECSA) project will begin. The GAFSP fund for BRECSA was jointly secured by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, WFP, and IFAD.

The project will address climate-resilient agriculture production and the creation of jobs and income through resilient value chains.

A near real-time integrated agriculture statistical, monitoring, and reporting system is also being developed with the Royal Government to improve agricultural statistics, market-related data, and data on rural livelihoods, including farmers’ incomes.

This will help provide sector-wide agriculture data for improved production planning, targeting of agriculture services, and learning across the sector.

Sangay Rabten from Thimphu