Bhutan’s Minister of Agriculture and Forests, Dr Pema Gyamtsho, reiterated a pledge to render the small south Asian country’s agriculture wholly organic, at the annual sustainable development summit in New Delhi. The ambition is to eliminate herbicides and pesticides, and use natural fertilisers instead. The ambition applies to exports, too. Gyamtsho hopes the plan will boost Bhutan’s export potential, particularly to countries like neighbouring India and China, where there is an increasing demand for organic produce.
Bhutan’s mountainous topography increases run-off from fields, introducing chemicals into water systems; in response, many farmers already opt instead to use rotting leaves or compost as natural fertilisers to minimise pollution. Gyamtsho says the organic ambition will be realised “region by region and crop by crop”, and has yet to commit to a firm timeline. If Bhutan is to be the world’s first organic nation, it will have to rise to the challenge before the tiny south Pacific island of Niue, which has set itself a 2020 target.
However, Gyamtsho sees the organic shift as central to Bhutan’s socio-economic development plan. Under this, the Agriculture Ministry has set out plans for Bhutan to achieve food self-sufficiency by 2015. Bhutan currently consumes about 100,000 tonnes of rice a year, yet only produces about half that sum. A Buddhist state which considers the self and the environment as one, it has already made commitments to protect its abundant biodiversity, including the preservation of at least 60% of its land as forest.
Some of Bhutan’s farmers are reportedly unconvinced by the feasibility of a wholly organic system, telling international media that they are already under pressure, with a booming population and a labour drain of young people, not to mention increasingly unpredictable weather conditions.
Tim Benton, Professor of Population Ecology at the University of Leeds, believes a wholly organic food system could be feasible for countries which are not competitive in terms of the quantity of food they produce but harbour ambitions to compete on quality.
“Immediately, Bhutan would suffer a yield loss, but they would also see environmental benefits”, says Benton. “They will have to decide if the potential benefits from things like green tourism will be economically sufficient to offset their loss of production. Of course, Bhutan will never compete with the Brazils of this world [on food production].”
Benton points to Switzerland as a country which strives to maximise quality over quantity – producing less food but focusing on premium, organic crops. Ultimately, the plan’s success may depend on the subsidies available to farmers, he says. – Lucy Purdy
Photo: Flickr soham_pablo