By Dr. Dorjee Kinlay
Unsustainable Food Imports: The pandemic has clearly demonstrated the need for food self-sufficiency in Bhutan. Our monarchs have repeatedly stressed the importance of food self-sufficiency for a small, landlocked country. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forests has done well in adapting appropriate agricultural technolgies to date. The development partners, especially the specialized international research centres, such as the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), International Potato Centre (CIP), International Food Price Research Institute (IFPRI), the International Centre for Research on Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT) have also made invaluable contributions to our agricultural policies.
The weak link has always been the marketing of RNR products and the lack of the use of appropriate and enabling fiscal and monetary policy instruments. Today the most common complaint of the farmers, aside from wildlife damage to their crops, is the lack of markets for their products. They can produce what the nation needs even in our difficult conditions.
The predominantly subsistence orientation of the farmers, who treat their livelihood more as a way of life than a business, has stalled the commercialization of agricultural production. More importantly, the burgeoning imports (See graphs at the end of the article) of relatively lowly priced food items from outside has been a major disincentive to Bhutanese farmers whose costs of production are much higher on account of farm labour shortages and limited scope for mechanization and agro-processing.
Given the need to protect urban consumers from rising food prices, the governments in the past, have not used the necessary fiscal and monetary policies to compensate for the inability of Bhutanese farmers to compete with imported products. The default policies have tended to be biased against Bhutanese farmers and in favour of liberal imports. This has resulted in a huge trade imbalance and the rapid decline in food self-sufficiency.
Transformation of the RNR Sector with a pro-farmer Food Policy: Thanks to lessons learned in 2020, the time is right to transform the RNR sector into an engine for sustainable, green growth, using all the available means to enable our farmers to produce as well as market their products and meet the national demand for affordable, nutritious, and safe food for all citizens at all times. The starting point would be the formulation of a pro-farmer Food Policy and concomitant Strategy formulated after consultations with our farmers throughout the country.
RNR Census using internationally comparable methodology: The strategy and plan should be based on facts. Sufficient time should be taken to collect the necessary information through an RNR census, involving the complete enumeration of all farming households. The financial and technical support of our development partners could be utilized. A full year of painstaking data collection would be needed to cover all the seasons. The NSB, as the statistical authority in Bhutan, would conduct the RNR Census with support of MoAF and other agencies such as MoE, local governments and youth organizations. The period can also be used to design and train the farmers in using an online RNR Management information system that is real time and based on inputs through smartphones. So in the future censuses would not be necessary as the information can be updated on a daily basis and used by all stakeholders for planning and operational purposes.
An Agricultural Transformation and Food Sovereignty Act: The final Policy, Strategy and Action Plan should be translated into an Agricultural Transformation and Food Sovereignty Act in late 2022 to be implemented over an eight to ten-year period. A bold new agricultural policy for the future, aimed at securing a sustainable and economically viable agri-food system in Bhutan, should be backed by the necessary legislation to nurture and protect our farmers for some years until they have graduated from subsistence farming to commercial production systems with integrated value chains. We cannot ensure access to affordable, safe and nutritious food to all Bhutanese if the present default anti-farmer policies are not altered in favour of our farmers.
Whilst in the past food self-sufficiency and sovereignty were important consideration only at times of war, we now know that factors other than war also warrant food self-sufficiency prioritization. Climate change and natural disasters are in the offing and Bhutan would do well to be prepared for such situations in addition to COVID-like challenges and disruptions to open trading systems. This is a challenge but also a golden opportunity to finally bring our farmers, especially the youth, into the mainstream of our economy and redress some of the long-standing biases against agriculture and the farmers.
Geog RNR Coops; Dzongkhag RNR Coops and a National Farmers Corporation of Bhutan (NFCB): The best solution may be to establish RNR Cooperatives in each geog with each farming household as shareholders. This would a logical add on to PDP’s “Wangtshe chirpel” and DNT’s “narrowing the gap”. These geog cooperatives could collectively constitute the Dzongkhag level RNR Cooperative and the sum of the Dzongkhag Coops would constitute, at the national level, the apex National Farmer’s Cooperative of Bhutan (NFCB). NFCB could be given the overall responsibility to coordinate, plan, produce and market the farm products for the domestic market as well as exports of RNR products. Such a farmers-owned, and managed entity, in close league with the MoAF, could be given some of the responsibilities and resources that the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests currently controls. It could also replace the FCB. The Cooperatives would work closely with the local governments, or be an integral part of the local governments, but operate strictly in accordance with corporate principles. They could become the backbone of the private sector in Bhutan. The Consumer Protection Department in the MoEA could provide the needed counterbalance on behalf of the consumers.
Deepening Democracy at the Grass Roots level: A truly farmer-centered approach would make them shareholders and give them democratic rights in the governance of their Cooperatives. The deepening and furthering of democracy amongst the vast majority of the Bhutanese population beyond the national and local government elections would be a positive externality of the new policy. The anti-agriculture biases_ in our legislation and policies could be removed for the benefit of our farmers and their determination to fulfil the national goal of attaining food sovereignty by 2030.
Opportunities for Rural Youth: Youth could play a critical role in the Agriculture Census and in the operation of the Modern RNR Cooperatives at the geog, dzongkhag and national levels. They can become key players in a modern digital based RNR Cooperatives system using technology for production such as e-agriculture, marketing, processing, transport, and trade. The RSEB’s Commodity Exchange system that is already operational and profitable can overcome the disadvantages of physical auction yards.
Conclusion 1– First conduct a Comprehensive RNR Census to generate accurate data/evidence and prepare the ground for the launch and implementation of the Act: A bold new RNR Sector Transformation and Food Sovereignty Act, with a coherent agricultural policy, strategy and operational plan should be strategic, tactical and evidence based. The future agri-food system may best be managed by farmer-owned Cooperatives who will create a network of integrated logistics centres. The detailed planning for such a new agri-food system should, however, be based on a well-designed and carefully conducted RNR Census.
Extensive and consultations with the farmers will ensure that the new strategy and plan is doable and understandable to the farmers when it comes to implementation. The structures and groups formed and capacitated during the RNR Census will be the basis for the sound implementation of the Operational Plan during the roll out. The Census investigators could be selected on the basis of their likelihood to take up key jobs in the future Cooperatives in a particular geog.
The RNR Census would be an investment and capacity development phase, during which detailed plans can be formulated for each geog, chiwog and village primarily by the farmers themselves with the aid of specialists such as agronomists, farming systems economists, horticulturalists, marketing specialists, veterinarians, dairy and poultry experts as well as post-harvest and agro-processing professionals.
Conclusion 2: Act now to secure food sovereignty by 2030: Bhutan can decide to aim to attain food sovereignty by 2030 and be in tandem with the UN Agenda 2030: Sustainable Development Goals. As His Majesty the King has pointed out on various occasions, “…it is high time, we take the right decision at the right time!” A decision on such a crucial national goal need not await the end of COVID. If the decision is taken to conduct the RNR Census we could immediately employ at least 205 graduates with the right attitude, background, and outlook for about 10 to 18 months, with possibility of being employed in the same geog where they are deployed as chief investigators for the census. They would be trained, exposed to rural life, and may even be spared a shady life in the Middle East or a laborious future Down Under.
I am sharing this personal perspective with the hope of receiving some feedback and stimulating an open and productive conversation on a most fundamental sector. The RNR sector is vital to our national security, sovereignty and prosperity.
The writer is an Independent Senior Agriculture and Development Economist and Former FAO Representative in the Kyrgyz Republic (2013-2018) and First Head of PPD, Ministry of Agriculture (1990-1997).
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