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Urban Agriculture in Bhutan

Updated on March 16, 2016

1. Introduction

Bhutan is one of the rapidly urbanizing countries in South Asia and by 2050 Bhutan will have more people living in urban than in rural areas. The rapid urbanization that is taking place goes together with a rapid increase in urban poverty and urban food insecurity. Most towns and urban areas will have great difficulties to cope with this development and will not be able to create sufficient formal employment opportunities for the poor. They also have increasing problems with the disposal of urban wastes and waste water and maintaining air and river water quality.

2. Why we need to pay our attention on urban farming?

We first examine what the “urban farming” means. According to FAO’s policy brief, urban farming or peri-urban farming is explained as;

  • It’s the farming within cities. It generally occurs on a smaller scale
  • Practiced on fallow public and private spaces, wetlands and underdeveloped areas
  • In many countries urban agriculture is informal and sometimes even illegal, because of the competition for land, its environmental impact and food safety concerns
  • Urban agriculture is not primarily a source of cash income
  • Food security benefits materialize mostly through better access to additional and more nutritious food.

2000 paper by Hermann Waibel and Erich Schmidt discuss the urban farming from the policy planners’ view, particularly focusing on land use, in the rural-urban food supply and demand of the Asian style of city setting. Given rapidly growing population, they argue that,

  1. city authorities shall accept that there are farming activities within their city limits regardless their wish or efforts to control,
  2. governmental intervention is necessary to exercise their power to control over the land usage, and they suggest that city authorities must send very clear messages, backed-up by the regulations, to control the land to be used for farming as well as to create the suffer zones between the farming and non-farming zones.

Broader consensuses are being formed about the benefits of urban farming; there are three objectives:

  1. Improve the contribution of urban and peri-urban agriculture to food and income security of vulnerable urban households
  2. Enhance the positive environmental and health impacts of UPA and mitigate the negative effects
  3. Promote UPA as positive, productive and essential component of sustainable cities

In some cases benefits from urban agriculture will clearly outweigh potential negative consequences, such as environmental pollution or competition over scarce resources. In these cases policy makers should actively promote urban agriculture and find ways to integrate it in urban land-use planning.

Urban agriculture provides a complementary strategy to reduce urban poverty and food insecurity and enhance urban environmental management. Urban agriculture plays an important role in enhancing urban food security since the costs of supplying and distributing food to urban areas based on rural production and imports continue to increase, and do not satisfy the demand, especially of the poorer sectors of the population. Next to food security, urban agriculture contributes to local economic development, poverty alleviation and social inclusion of the urban poor and women in particular, as well as to the greening of the city and the productive reuse of urban wastes.

Food and nutrition security

The contribution of urban agriculture to food security and healthy nutrition is probably its most important asset. Urban agriculture to a large extent complements rural agriculture and increases the efficiency of the national food system in that it provides products that rural agriculture cannot supply easily (e.g. perishable products, products that require rapid delivery upon harvest), that can substitute for food imports and can release rural lands for export production of commodities.

Economic impacts

Urban-poor in developing countries spend 50-80 % of their income on foods, and typically show very inelastic price elasticity of food demand. Because of those, facing with the rapidly increasing food prices, the immensely heightened social unrest had emerged around the globe, such as the food riots over the price of bread in Egypt. For instance, growing the relatively expensive vegetables therefore saves money as well as on bartering of produce.

Social impacts

Urban agriculture may function as an important strategy for poverty alleviation and social integration. Urban farmers may feel enriched by the possibility of working constructively, building their community, working together and in addition producing food and other products for consumption and for sale. In city like Thimphu, urban agriculture may be undertaken for the physical and/or psychological relaxation it provides, rather than for food production per say. Also, urban and peri-urban farms may take on an important role in providing recreational opportunities for citizens or having educational functions.

Degraded open spaces and vacant land are often used as informal waste dump sites and are a source of crime and health problems. When such zones are turned into productive green spaces, not only an unhealthy situation is cleared, but also the neighbors will passively or actively enjoy the green area. Such activities may also enhance community self-esteem in the neighborhood and stimulate other actions for improving the community's livelihood.

Contributions to urban ecology

Urban agriculture is part of the urban ecological system and can play an important role in the urban environmental management system. It may also positively impact upon the greening and cleaning of the city by turning derelict open spaces into green zones and maintaining buffer and reserve zones free of housing, with positive impacts on the micro-climate.

3. Bhutanese Context

We must underline the note that projected rate of urbanization of Bhutan is far faster than other Asian countries. The rate that is measured as the number of years between the start of a region’s urbanization (when about 10% of its population was urban), to when about 50% of its population is urban. Bhutan is projected to take 55 years (from 1980 to 2035) to complete the urbanization process, compare to 90 years for Vietnam, 95 years for Asia.

This is the important point to note for Bhutanese development policy planners, because we must take necessary measures in a much shorter time period, compared to the other countries. What is the most efficient way to enlarge the food production capacity? Can Bhutan fill its enlarged food demand by import? Practically, answer is no, because of the projected international food trade price movements, and the required amount of food to fill the urban demand. Bhutan needs to develop a food supply system to feed the increased urban population of 197 thousand by 2035 in over the next 23 years, 280 thousand by 2050. The projected size of increments is significant relative to the projected total population of 924 thousand in 2035, and 962 thousand in 2050.

If Bhutan can develop the needed food production capacity in urban, that is, closer places to where population density will get thick, it will materialize the following benefits,

  • establish marketing channel with reduced marketing costs
  • increase supply of fresh foods
  • make supply chain flow thicker
  • develop food supply chain
  • stimulate to develop food processing industry
  • The long time development target of shifting subsistence farming to market oriented will be achieved.

By having the concentrated food production areas in or near the urban, we can also expect to achieve follows;

  • can establish sustainable production system - such as making fertilizer from waste-water and establish green farming
  • make urban environment more green – such as by having park style city garden farms
  • can create employment opportunities

To induce the desirable stimulating economic effects those listed as above, a reasonably large sized urban food demand must be created. A rough estimate yields, compare to the 2011 demand levels, approximately about 1.7 times of meat, 1.2 times of cereals, and 1.5 times of vegetables are needed in 2035. If projected increases in urban food demands are fairly concentrated, of course, those are large enough to establish private business.

The rapid urbanization will bring problems, however, in maintaining air and river water quality because of the large quantity of disposal of urban wastes and waste water. It will also show the “poverty urbanization” unless urban employments expand at equally rapid rate of urbanization. By adopting policy responses that better integrate agriculture into urban development; we will be able to reap considerable benefits, especially enhancements in social, economic and environmental sustainability.

Can Urban Agriculture in Bhutan pursued?

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