Bhutan couldn’t achieve its goal of becoming a 100% organic country by 2020 despite the best of intention, strong political will and government support. What challenges have prevented Bhutan from achieving its goal and does it still or ever have the chance of achieving the goal?
Back in 2002, Bhutan took its first step to embrace organic agriculture by opening a small organic agriculture (OA) unit under the Department of Agriculture. After a decade, during the Rio+20 Summit in 2012, Bhutan made an ambitious declaration to the international community to become a fully OAcountry by 2020. The declaration came from the country’s own belief in the centrality of interdependence, coexistence and working with nature, which are among the central tenets of OA.
The declaration was well timed. By 2012, many negative impacts of conventional agriculture had been thoroughly studied, and were being felt by people in many countries. Conventional agriculture is often reliant on regular use of synthetic agro-chemicals, mono-cropping, artificial hormones, and hybrid and genetically engineered seeds. The general public was becoming increasingly aware that these practices contribute to global warming, soil and water pollution, biodiversity loss, farmers’ debt, loss of seed and food sovereignty, and in many countries, farmers’ suicide. Therefore, the declaration attracted broad attention from the international press, and widespread support within Bhutan and around the world. Several international agencies and individuals, often from the industrialized global north where the impacts of conventional agriculture is widespread, saw this declaration as an important step forward for the development of resilient and ecologically sound food and agricultural systems around the world.
Organic agriculture, Gross National Happiness and Sustainable Development Goals
Tucked between two global economic giants, Bhutan with a population of 740,000 people has inspired the international community in many ways, including adoption of Gross National Happiness (GNH) metric for measuring development instead of the dominant emphasis on Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Beyond elevating happiness over wealth, GNH emphasizes on holistic approach to socio-economic and environmental sustainability. This multi-dimensional GNH growth model leads to an expectation for environmentally sound food production that supports sustainable livelihoods and food security. For this reason, OA is appropriate for Bhutan and organically produced food has become a high priority objective for the government.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, OA is less harmful compared to most other forms of farming, and offers multiple benefits that address Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Cognizant of its myriad positive roles, OA is increasingly being adopted across the world and for the first time in 2019, the global share of agricultural land under OA reached 1.5%.
There is increasing awareness that OA makes important contributions to safer food and fiber production with minimal adverse impacts on society, economy and environment. Thus, OA is seen as an important tool for addressing multiple SDGs. Whilst healthy and sustainable food has direct and indirect link to all the 17 SDGs, OA has more relevance and direct contribution to at least eight goals, including Zero Hunger, Good Health and Well-being, Clean Water and Decent Work Conditions.
Foundational philosophies and principles of OA, GNH and SDGs are consistent, allowing them to be seen as three sisters bound by a common purpose: sustainable management of our earth’s natural resources upon which the future and the livelihood of all depends. These three are complementary, and for Bhutan it was natural to embrace OA in order to achieve SDGs. Indeed, official reports of the government show that, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Bhutan is well on track on several SDGs targets.
Status of organic agriculture in Bhutan
This year marks 20 years since the launching of OA in Bhutan and two years past the deadline to become a 100% organic country. With only 5.6% of the land officially certified as organic from a total of 189,499 acres cultivated land, the progress has been slow and deliberate, according to Ms Kesang Tshomo, Coordinator of the National Organic Programme (NOP) and leader of the National Organic Flagship Programme, in an interview. Ms Tshomo explains that “as there are still many things to learn, the farmers are not forced to convert. If there are interested farmers, the NOP supports them through training and technical backstopping”. In fact, more than 80% of the Bhutanese farms are traditionally organic, without using synthetic agro-chemicals, and their products are sold without organic certification but considered as organic.
So far more than 1,442 farmers and 302 agriculture extension officials have been trained in composting, plant protection, and registration for certification, etc. according to the sources working in the organic sector, . Current data shows that approximately 1,998 households are engaged in organic farming and there are 41 farmers’ groups, a dozen organic retailers and five exporters. Six organic model villages in different agro-ecological zones and three small organic fertiliser production units with an annual production capacity of 20 MT each have also been established.
The NOP has accredited the Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority (BAFRA) as a third party certification body for local markets in 2019. The NOP reports that more than 40 commodities have been certified as organic in addition to eight types of cereal and vegetable seeds.
Enablers and drivers of organic agriculture
Strong government support and political will for converting to OA have resulted in establishment of foundational institutions, structures and policies to support conversion. This includes the launching of the National Framework for Organic Agriculture in Bhutan in 2007 and upgrading of the OA unit to the NOP in 2008. Concurrently, a technical working group representing members from various departments was constituted with a mandate to “decide and review policies” that may have national implications. Additionally in 2019, the National Organic Board was formed and several important documents related to organic certification, including the Bhutan Organic Standard were launched.
The government also designated the Agriculture Research Development Centre in western Bhutan as the National Centre for Organic Agriculture in 2020. The government’s strong support of the organic sector is reflected in the five-year National Organic Flagship Programme (2018-2023). The programme, worth Bhutanese Ngultrum (Nu.) 1 billion (or USD 12.8 million), was the largest fund dedicated to the organic sector. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government reduced the initial budget by 50%, but the investment was still substantial by Bhutanese standards, and much higher than previous levels of support. When the government made the organic declaration in 2012-13, the budget for the organic sector was USD 200,000, then in 2016-17 the budget fell to USD 31,000.
Converting to organic now would be easier for Bhutan than later, said the former agriculture minister, Dr Pema Gyamtsho during an international organic and ecological agriculture conference in 2014. This is because agriculture in Bhutan is largely traditional, and these farmers use practices that are largely consistent with organic standards and are equated as organic-by-default. This was also noted by Mr Andre Leu, the former President of the International Federation of the Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), in the same occasion. Therefore, switching to certified OA may not result in major disruptions to their management techniques.
The suitability of organic farming for smallholder family farms is an advantage for Bhutan where the average per capita landholding is slightly less than 1 hectare, and subsistence farming based on low-input traditional agriculture predominates.
Bhutan is also known for having a pristine environment and carbon neutral economy. The country’s constitution that mandates to maintain 60% of its land under forest cover at all times, and having more than 72% of the land under forest has catapulted Bhutan to the top 10 global biodiversity hotspots. Bhutan could leverage this international reputation with organic branding and marketing of its agricultural products.
Recent studies and incidences related to pest and disease outbreaks, for instance Turcicum leaf blight of maize and massive army worms attacks across most parts of the country and the increasing cases of windstorms, erratic rainfall and water sources drying up are all linked to climate change. As such, OA is recognized as a practical climate adaptation and mitigation strategy in Bhutan, for instance, it helps build soil organic carbon, which in turn can contribute to greater water and nutrient holding capacity of the soil, thus reducing the undesirable climate impacts.
Academics at the College of Natural Resources, Bhutan’s only agricultural college, claim that concerns about food safety, environmental health, soil and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity are increasing. Calls for a renaissance in the way the food is being produced in the country are looming.
Challenges and deterrents
Farmers and government officials have noted multiple challenges in converting to OA. As a resource-strapped country with an overall GDP of USD 2.4 billion, Bhutan lacks the resources needed for research, innovation and adoption of new technology, according to Mr Kailash Pradhan, senior agriculture specialist working in the National Centre for Organic Agriculture, in an interview. As a result, research is not a priority in agriculture and most other sectors.
With less than 1% of the professionals having formal degree or training in OA, Mr Leu, who is closely associated with Bhutan’s OA movement, points out that most of the professionals who lead organic sector in Bhutan have a background in conventional agriculture. Many argue that going fully organic would compromise the country’s food security goals, as organic to them means low soil fertility, more pests and diseases and low productivity and income.
The slow rate of conversion to certified OA in the country can also be attributed to a shortage of organic inputs and effective alternatives to synthetic pesticides. Some farmers, particularly those growing potatoes, paddy rice and apples do resort to using synthetic agro-chemicals. But this constraint may lessen as the NOFP aims to strengthen production and supply of organic inputs. In 2021, Farm Machinery Corporation Ltd. (a state-owned company), signed an MoU with the Korean B & B Co. Ltd. to establish a bio-fertiliser factory in west-central Bhutan, which would generate all of the country’s annual bio-fertiliser requirement of 40,000 MT.
Bhutan is highly reliant on imported products, including cooking oil, salt, sugar, agricultural produces, clothes, vehicles, petroleum products and construction materials, etc. because the domestic production cost is very high and there is a shortage of farm and industrial workers. It is reported that the farming population has been steadily decreasing to about 57% now from a high of 82% in the 1980s. Imported commodities are sometimes half the price of local products. Farmers report that this reduces their motivation to work on farms. In May 2022, coinciding with the local chilli harvest, the Dagana district in west-central Bhutan banned cheaper imported chillies from India. The COVID-19 pandemic and the unprecedented increase in fuel price due to the ongoing Russian war on Ukraine have amplified the problem.
Other challenges deterring agriculture development (both conventional and organic) nationwide include human-wildlife “conflict”, irrigation water shortages, rural-urban migration, poor market access, and rudimentary and uncoordinated distribution networks.
Going fully organic - Way forward
Realising that Bhutan would not be able to achieve 100% organic target by 2020, the Minister of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests at the 2019 National Organic Symposium suggested pushing the time limit later to 2035.
With two decades’ experience with OA, Bhutan can learn from successes and failures around the world, including Sikkim, Sri Lanka and Switzerland. Insights from these experiences can strengthen local expertise in organic production methods and build confidence to convert to 100% organic. Development of critical institutions and infrastructure, and political support for OA boost the conversion effort. Rather than legally requiring farmers to get organic certification, it is more effective to convince the farmers by making bio-inputs available, offering premiums and subsidies, so as to increase the conversion rate.
Accelerating conversion to OA also requires increased investment in OA research, education and innovation that will generate suitable technologies and innovative site-specific practices that will increase supply. This must be coupled with education on the benefits of traditional, local, and organic agriculture that will increase demand.
Moving forward, investment and focus also have to be on organic production, market forecast, processing, and value addition besides engaging and empowering private sector in furthering the organic cause. It would also be crucial to liaise with external agencies and keep abreast with the developments in organic sector outside the country.
Edited by Joanna Wong (hbs)
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