Not so long ago, we believed that as a small country with a small population, food self-sufficiency wasn’t a huge concern, and that it was within our grasp. That was when our farms were the source of livelihood, and farmers stayed back to produce food.
A lot has changed since then. We achieved impressive growth rates, at times to the envy of many countries. But as the stats start flowing from the central bank, there are worrying revelations. One figure that demands immediate attention is the imbalance in food trade. Within two years, our food trade imbalance has increased by 24 percent. The deficit is Nu 5.2B. Out of this, Nu 1.5B was spent on rice. At this rate, the dream of food self-sufficiency will remain out of reach.
The only consolation is that some of the imports were fake, yet self-sufficiency in rice, our staple food, is only around 50 percent. As we begin to get a good understanding of our exports and imports, we are reminded of the risks ahead. The growth, we were all happy about, was mostly driven by loans and grants. This is an artificial forward movement.
While we se a lot of activity, we are drowned in debt. Total debt today is eight percent higher than the country’s GDP size. Experts keep reassuring that our debt is still very much in a manageable situation. That loans are all soft term and self liquidating. There are others warning us that we are putting everything in the hydropower basket and not diversifying. We might have a few mega hydropower projects bringing in hard cash in a few years time, but will money guarantee self-sufficiency?
Farmers are beginning to feel that it is cheaper to import rice than to cultivate. There are factors that force farmers to feel so. Producing rice has become arduous and expensive. But as a landlocked country, over reliance on import is risky. Our food security is then determined by forces that are beyond our control. What if prices shoot up in India for reasons like natural calamities or conflicts? We can only panic and wait for the situation to normalise.
Every year, alarming figures are published, decision makers are alerted and we tend to forget our priorities. It is a good time for some serious introspection. We have a generation that is still around that survived without having to import much. We have failed to build on that. Agriculture seems to take the backstage in our race for development. Sooner or later, we will regret it.
With wise leadership at the helm, Bhutan’s agriculture policies were at centrestage in the past. The emphasis on rural development was important of our development plans. The balance has now tipped and now we have new priorities. With elected governments, priorities could change and probably with their mandates and promises.
Fortunately, officials are starting to realise the importance of the agriculture sector. Perhaps it is time to go back a few years and initiate subsidies and incentives for food producers. Our focus today may be on the need of irrigation and agricultural techniques. Like we say, it is better to be late than never.