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Rupee crunch boosts Bhutan's agri sector

Publication Date : 19-04-2012


The rupee crunch in Bhutan has given the agriculture sector an "opportunity" to boost its food production, and shift gears towards self-sufficiency, a goal set decades ago.

Bhutan today is self sufficient in egg production but spends millions of rupees importing most other food item, agriculture officials said.

Last year, Bhutan spent almost 4 billion rupees (US$77 million) on agricultural imports, which comprise meat items, dairy products, coffee, tea, rice, edible oil and sugar.

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.

For example, the budget for agriculture sector in the tenth plan is only 5 per cent of the total outlay, less by a percent from the last plan, and seven percent less than what it received in the eighth plan.

"This is a wake up call and, while it’s a problem, for the agriculture sector it’s really an opportunity for us to take advantage,” agriculture minister Dr Pema Gyamtsho said. “We’ve already started to do that by focusing on taking to scale one thing that can be done best in one area,” lyonpo (Dr) Pema Gyamtsho said. The one-gewog three products program is one such example.

While officials are optimistic that Bhutan can achieve self-sufficiency in eggs, vegetables and dairy products by the end of the 11th plan, there are apprehensions in case of meat and rice production.

Director of the department of agricultural marketing and cooperatives, Dorji Dhradhul, said Bhutan imported 2 million eggs last year when the ban on imports was lifted. “But we produced 22 million eggs in the last one year and, at times, even had difficulties selling them, which is why we can say that we’re self sufficient in eggs,” he said. “The only challenge is that prices are still high.”

Bhutan can locally produce meat. But since Bhutanese do not want to kill animals for meat, Bhutan will continue to import meat items, which is the third highest imported food item, after rice and dairy products. Last year, Bhutan imported meat items worth 629.3 million rupees ($12 million) from India.

The minister said today no one knows what kind of meat they eat, or under what condition the animals were fed.  “Even when entreprenuers come forward, there’s a lot of anti sentiments expressed towards the establishment of abattoir,” lyonpo said.

Although Bhutan has started producing warm water fisheries in the south, the decision has brought about lots of criticism from people against those, who are engaging in poultry and fishery, the minister said. Last year, Bhutan imported fish worth 160 million rupees ($3 million), an increase of almost 21 million rupees ($404,000 million) from the previous year.

As for dairy products, Bhutan is “almost there,” said agriculturists. To achieve self-sufficiency in dairy products, which today is one of the highest imported food items.  Last year, Bhutan imported dairy products worth 669.8 million rupees ($12 million).

"I think we’re quite comfortable in dairy products like milk, where we have achieved about 50 per cent self sufficiency,” Dorji Dhradhul said.

Moreover, while Bhutan has potential to be self sufficient in rice production, its terrain and limited land holdings make it challenging. Most imported rice is used to feed the imported labour force, lyonpo said.

Bhutan imported rice (cereals) worth 1.1 billion rupees last year, the highest imported food item. “We’ll never be able to produce all the rice we require, because we have limited wetland,” lyonpo said. “But we can at least increase by another 20-30 per cent by increasing irrigation.”

Rice production in the country was also severely affected when the government removed the irrigation engineers in the ‘90s. That decision resulted in irrigation schemes going defunct.

Farm mechanisation is another way to boost rice production.  In places where tractors cannot reach, power tillers or other processing equipment would be placed to increase mechanisation.

Land fragmentation has posed another challenge.  Which is why the ministry has started forming farmers’ groups and cooperatives to commercialise production.

But going for 100-per cent rice sufficiency would also not be "economically in Bhutan’s favour,” officials said.  Arable land is about five to six percent of the country’s landmass, much lower than what was initially recorded.  Of this, rice is grown on 58,000 acres.

Given the choice, people would like to convert all their rice fields into other forms of land and orchards, because rice has the least returns, compared to other crops, Dorji Dhradhul said.

In the 11th Plan, the ministry is targeting to achieve 65-70 per cent rice sufficiency, from about 50 per cent today.



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