James L. Stanfield/National
A Bhutanese farmer puts her harvest of chilies on the roof of
a shed to dry and protect it from wild boars, deer, and monkeys
The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan drew international attention a few
years back for saying
gross national happiness should trump gross domestic product when
measuring a nation's progress. If you're going to prioritize happiness, the
Bhutanese thinking goes, you'd better include the environment and spiritual
and mental well-being in your calculations. (Not everyone in Bhutan is
happy, and many leave as refugees, as Human Rights Watch and others
But Bhutan, which has only 700,000 people — most of whom are farmers —
has another shot at international fame if it can make good on a recent
pledge to become the first country in the world to convert to a 100 percent
organic agricultural system.
Last month at the
Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, Prime Minister Jigmi
said his government is developing a National Organic Policy because the
country's farmers are increasingly convinced that "by working in harmony
with nature, they can help sustain the flow of nature's bounties."
Going all-out organic is a lofty goal for any country given that many
farmers — and poor farmers in particular — covet chemical fertilizers and
pesticides to enrich their soil, boost production and keep diseases and
pests at bay.
Andre Leu, an Australian adviser to the Bhutanese government and the
president of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements,
says it's very doable.
"I don't think it's going to be that difficult given that the majority of
the agricultural land is already organic by default," Leu tells The Salt.
Indeed, the synthetic chemicals and fertilizers that are used so widely
in countries like the U.S. are only available and affordable to a few of
Bhutan's farmers who are widely dispersed across the rugged and mountainous
terrain sandwiched between India and China. But very few of the
organic-by-default farmers have been certified as such by third-party
institutions. (Certified organic food, by the way, makes up less than 1
percent of the world's calories, and is mostly available to wealthy
According to the World Food Program, Bhutanese farmers
mainly grow rice and corn, as well as some fruits and vegetables,
including potatoes and oranges. But as demand for food has grown in recent
years, the country has been forced to import rice and other foods from
India, and today Bhutan is a net food importer.
One of the few products Bhutan exports to the U.S. is red rice;
Lotus Foods sells it to chains like Whole Foods. Bhutanese red rice is
more nutritious and tastes nuttier than white rice, its boosters say, and is
pilaf, as Monica Bhide
reported for NPR's Kitchen Window earlier this year. The rice does not
have organic certification, but Lotus Foods says it been grown without the
use of pesticides or other chemical inputs for centuries.
The Ministry of Agriculture
says the organic program, launched in 2007, is not just about protecting
the environment. It will also train farmers in new methods that will help
them grow more food and move the country closer to self-sufficiency. The
ministry is now training extension workers in organic methods and giving
farmers who go organic priority for government assistance.
Not everyone is so sure that a 100 percent organic Bhutan is a great
idea. Leu says he's found some resistance among researchers at the Ministry
of Agriculture who've been trained in conventional farming techniques
And an article last year in the Bhutan Observer
that many farmers who grow export crops like apple, Mandarin orange, and
potato already rely heavily on chemical fertilizers and could be reluctant
to give them up.
Still, Leu is optimistic that Bhutan's burgeoning organic agriculture
research centers will eventually be able to come up with organic methods to
boost yields and manage the problems of these crops.
"All these problems are solvable, they just need a few more years of
research to come up with some more effective solutions," Leu says.