Refilling the Bhutanese Food Basket with Dru-na-gu
A healthy wildlife population, sprawling thick forests, scenic mountains and a vast array of agricultural crops—all these are found in Bhutan, one of the smallest countries and among the biodiversity hotspots in the world.
Bhutan prides itself as a nation with a very rich biodiversity spread over its 38,394 km2 geographical area. Its forest cover, a whooping 70.46%, is the envy of other countries.
Bhutan owes its thick forest cover primarily to the great importance its people and government extend to its natural resources. The people’s religious beliefs as well as the country’s laws and statutes emphasize giving importance to nature. No less than the country’s constitution guarantees the maintenance of a minimum of 60% forest cover in perpetuity.
Equally diverse are Bhutan’s agricultural crops and food sources. Bhutan is an agricultural country whose agricultural systems are dictated by climate, altitude, and topography because of its varied ecological landscape. Vegetables and other food crops are grown, but central to the production are cereals which dominate the Bhutanese diet. Cereals and crops grown are mainly composed of the Dru-na-gu, a collective term for a group of nine traditional food crops in most farming systems. These nine crops are rice, maize, wheat, barley, buckwheat, millets, pulse, oilseeds, and amaranths.
INTRODUCTION OF FOREIGN CROP VARIETIES
The crops comprising the Dru-na-gu are not only important as food and sustenance sources but also play integral roles in Bhutanese culture and traditions. These are used in the conduct of rimdos (religious rituals) and loche (annual religious ceremony) which require preparation and offering of torm (divine figurines) made from cooked rice, wheat or barley flour, and tshog (ritual offerings). Cereals also play roles in social gatherings as these are used to prepare ara (local liquor) and banchang (local beer)—essential items for socialization and entertaining visitors.
Rice and maize are the primary crops grown throughout Bhutan with rice being the preferred staple among Bhutanese and maize as the alternative. The two crops also occupy the majority of agricultural lands. Production systems for rice may vary depending on altitude or elevation. These can either be irrigated, rainfed, or upland. Maize is grown across all the 20 districts of Bhutan due to its adaptability to varying elevations. Bhutanese farmers grow two to five varieties of rice in their fields, with every variety serving a specific purpose. Such purposes may include rice for daily consumption, for brewing, and for ritual purposes.
With rice and maize as dominant crops, the other crops are relegated as secondary or minor. Nonetheless, such crops remain equally important as they thrive in areas where rice production is not possible due to climate and elevation. They remain part of the Bhutanese food as these are used for making pancakes, flat breads, noodles, and dough.
Bhutan was a secluded country for most of its recent history. It was only in the 1960s that it opened its doors to the global community and, consequently, established trade relations and entered into agreements with other countries. This critical period in Bhutan’s history paved the way for the introduction of crops and crop varieties not native to nor grown in the agricultural systems of the country.
The introduced crops and varieties included cabbage, apples, cauliflower, peach, cherry, rice and corn. Their introduction to Bhutan was supposed to answer food security and sufficiency concerns by lessening dependence on imports and improving productivity as these crops are high yielding and are more commercially viable.
Subsequently, farmlands grown previously with cereals were converted to horticultural areas. Farmers have also shifted their production to cash crops instead of wheat and other cereals. Needs for rice were addressed by purchasing from the local market. Eventually, modern varieties dominated the agricultural landscape with 42% of rice areas and 49% of corn areas planted with modern varieties.
The introduction of species is in stark contrast to the basic principles of biodiversity conservation. In most cases, this paves the way for the erosion of indigenous genetic resources. Modern varieties invade the ecological niches of the native varieties. In addition to new genetic characteristics, introduced species bring along or assist the arrival of new predators and diseases. Such may be the case with the infestation that happened in 1995 that caused traditional rice varieties to become susceptible to pests and diseases that adversely affected rice production.
Biodiversity conservation initiatives of the government are noteworthy, but have also to an extent adversely impacted agricultural production and farmers. The banning of tseri or the traditional shifting cultivation practice of upland farmers has resulted in the loss of varieties of millets. Millets are used for food, brewing beer, and making roti and flour.
In farming systems near wildlife habitats and forests, animals like deer and elephants have also caused problems for farmers. These animals tend to encroach on farmlands, destroying crops as well as posing security problems for farmers. Such incidence caused farms to be abandoned and for farmers to migrate elsewhere and shift to other livelihood sources.
With Bhutan’s entry to the global community, commercial and trade developments flourished.
Industrial structures slowly emerged in urban centers and the slow development in rural areas enticed and force citizens from rural and agricultural communities to migrate and shift income sources, from farming to industrial labor. Agricultural lands near urban centers are slowly being converted to industrial centers. The phenomenon of urban migration and land conversion add to the further under-development of the agricultural sector as well as hamper the utilization and development of plant genetic resources from traditional varieties.
Bhutan’s traditional crops like rice have been proven to possess various traits that are desirable. Current known traditional varieties have stable yield characteristics but the full extent of genetic materials available are yet to be fully documented. The government of Bhutan implemented a breeding program in the 1980s and can still very well do so with the use of a wide array of local germplasm.
The establishment of gene banks is a positive undertaking by the Bhutan government as this will allow for the conservation of genetic resources for future development and utilization. Such formal systems, however, limit the access and more so the control of farmers over their seeds due to protocols and requirements. In situ conservation utilizing farmers’ knowledge and duly supported by extension services is seen as one way of ensuring access and control of farmers over their planting materials especially because 95% of seed supply comes from informal seed systems of farming communities.
Mechanisms such as seed registration should be established at the level of communities for simple access and control. Extension services can also assist in the broadening of knowledge and skills of farmers in conservation by providing various technical and capacity building support.
The declaration of the Bhutan government to actively pursue organic farming is a positive step towards making possible the resurgence of traditional varieties of crops as this means doing away with chemical inputs which are primary requirements for modern varieties. Related policies on seeds and agrobiodiversity, however, need to be more explicit and biased for local indigenous varieties for promotion of its use and propagation.
The argument for traditional crops should be focused on the health of these crops and their environmental contributions. To further encourage propagation, crop insurance systems and markets need to be established and ensured.
Bhutan is signatory to critical international agreements and statutes. Historical and recent initiatives make Bhutan a good example in the field of biodiversity conservation.
All ecological systems are interconnected. The relationship of humans with their environment is not limited to the forests and those in it but inclusive of all natural environment including agricultural ecological systems. A continued proliferation of exotic varieties, compounded by
chemical pollution and erosion of genetic resources provide for a harmful relationship.
It’s time to go back to the basics. It’s time to go back to tradition. It’s time to bring back the dru-na-gu.
1. National Cereals Conservation Strategic Action Plan. National Biodiversity Centre. Ministry of Agriculture and Forests. 2013
[This publication has been produced with the assistance of the International Treaty. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE) and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the International Treaty.]