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Bhutanese farmer puts her harvest of chilies on the roof of a shed to
dry and protect it from wild boars, deer, and monkeys in 2006.
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 have noted.)
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 Thinley 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."
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.
But Andre Leu,
an Australian adviser to the Bhutanese government and the president of
the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, says it's
"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.
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
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
well-suited to 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.
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 notes
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.
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.
these problems are solvable, they just need a few more years of
research to come up with some more effective solutions," Leu says.