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Rice self-sufficiency conundrum!

For Bhutan to achieve its vision of food self-sufficiency, a major hurdle against this goal is the scarcity of rice produced in the country despite the presence of other food items such as maize and other cereals.

Simply put, we eat more rice than what we produce or what we can produce. In order to cater to the local demand, Bhutan reportedly imported about 50,000 metric tons of rice on an average every year, almost more than 4,000 truckloads of rice approximately. This was in 2014.

It was also revealed then in 2014 that the agriculture and forests ministry would strive to cut down the import of rice and other cereals by 25 percent in and target 65 percent of rice self-sufficiency in the 11th Plan. However, recent figure shows that our rice self-sufficiency is just 47 percent and we are already into the threshold of the 12th Plan.

So where is it going wrong? Some have even described our zealous pursuit of achieving rice-sufficiency as a far-fetched dream. No denying there are challenges from one to many to realize this mammoth goal.

Firstly, we have negligible arable land, where farming is most often limited by the country’s rugged terrain and topography. Similarly, budget allocation to the agricultural sector has been declining compared to the early years of planned development and with food security gaining more impetus than food self-sufficiency. So how do we further increase the land available for rice production?

Another daunting challenge would be ensuring environmental sustainability of rice farming because of the impacts of climate change that Bhutan is no exception too. A study by a Japanese university expounds that grain yield declines when the average daily temperature exceeds 29°C and grain quality continues to decline linearly as temperature rises. Another study found that each degree-Celsius increase in global mean temperature would averagely reduce yields of rice by 3.2 percent.

Further, it would also be worthwhile to find out the competitive advantage Bhutanese rice producers would have compared to other producers in the region and the world. Thus an important aspect here is affordability. If the price of local rice increases three or four folds after rice self-sufficiency, are we then making food affordable?

Nonetheless, investment must be made. Take Thailand for an example, which is the world’s second largest exporter of rice. Although the rice farming business in Thailand may be mired in politics today, this rapid expansion wasn’t something that happened overnight. It was possible all because of huge and meticulous investment on farm mechanization, road networks, technology, infrastructure, and irrigation canals such as the Rangsit and other canals and Chaopraya dam and others from the 1950s to 1980s. These are examples of the big projects that the government undertook for developing rice production there. A similar initiative on a grander scale is perhaps found wanting here in Bhutan too.