Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, food imports and exports were disrupted in 2020 due to border closures. The weak market logistics and information system caused the food commodities from being distributed evenly during the first national lockdown. Vegetable demand and production were out of sync, resulting in vegetable shortages.
Farmers in the country worked hard to grow vegetables after Ministry of Agriculture and Forests started encouraging individuals and farmers across the country to produce vegetables to help meet the food self-sufficiency goals.
Around October 2020, the ministry began focusing on the southern dzongkhags for winter vegetables production. This resulted in excess vegetables output and farmers had hard time selling their crops. Many farmers had no choice but to leave the vegetables rotting in the fields, as they could not export their farm produce in 2020.
The government also initiated buy-back schemes for the farmers who were unable to sell their produce. The export of vegetable was taking place, but with frequent disruption. The government faced difficulty in exporting cabbages and carrots around July 2020.
According to the Economic Affairs Minister, Loknath Sharma, import and export business is becoming institutionalized, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has become the norm around the world.
He said that there were various unofficial routes, and India began to systematize its trade after the ice gate was opened prior to the pandemic.
“Everything is in a computerized system, now that an ice gate has been erected, and each country has its own laws for importing vegetables, fruits, and meat, including India. For instance, we couldn’t import chilli because of pests, and India follows the same laws, requiring Pest Risk Analysis (PRA) and Plant Quarantine certifications, which they have been placed in a customs gate. And everything is starting to take shape,” Lyonpo said.
Lyonpo said that only asparagus was on the export list. The Government of India (GoI) did not send any notification on what is allowed and not allowed be exported from Bhutan to India. The agriculture ministry could not do any prior research on the restrictions in India and Bangladesh since no one knew where to acquire such information.
In the past, cardamom export issue arose, and government quickly resolved it, as well as the other five products: cardamom, mandarin, ginger, apple and areca nut.
India imports soil-free potatoes, which Bhutan has not been able to produce till now, but GoI gave the approval for potatoes until 2022, given the demand in India.
The situation with ginger emerged, nevertheless, when the government reviewed the documents, it was discovered that in 2016, an agreement was signed between Nepal and India, and it stated that fresh ginger would be imported from Nepal. However, there was no mention of Bhutan.
Bhutan also could not export areca nut.
The Agriculture Minister Yeshey Penjor said that the biggest challenge with exporting vegetables in 2021 was the formalization of trade by GoI. Despite this, the ministry facilitated the export of vegetables valued over Nu 460 million.
In the case of other vegetables, such as cabbage, carrots, and beans, the ministry has completed the PRA, and was notified by GoI in September 2021, which was not present during the previous export seasons. GoI has notified PRA for 13 commodities. Another 28 items have been identified as having export potential, and the PRA is still underway.
Meanwhile, the country was unable to export 1,800 metric tons of potatoes. Similarly, the ministry is attempting to consume the chillies grown in the country by drying them up and storing them. The country does not allow the import of chillies, cauliflowers, or beans due to high pesticide content, and have restricted the entry of potatoes into the country from India due to our own excess production.