Growing Organically

Written by Zufah Ansari  •  Features  •  May 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Bhutan endeavors to introduce organic farming throughout the country in the hope of saving the environment and boosting the economy.

A country with an odd national agenda has always been creative in forming its national ideologies around seeking happiness for its people. Nestled in the heart of the Himalayas, it is a country of 1.2 million people and has pledged to become one of the first countries in the world to become a fully organic agrarian economy. In doing so, it has announced drastic plans to turn its homegrown food into 100% organic products.

Despite its small size, Bhutan has braved its way towards accomplishing this new goal by seeking to diminish tradeoffs between the environment and the economy. Apart from achieving long-term economic benefits by turning to organic farming, the crux of the country’s collective effort is also a reflection of the philosophical objectives that stem from the thinking of Bhutan’s Buddhist majority.

In the process of becoming an organic agrarian economy, Bhutan will indulge in strategies to eliminate the use of pesticides and herbicides. In return, it will make relevant use of waste from animals and farms as sources of fertilizer. An economic parallel to these objectives is that Bhutan’s ministries have carefully evaluated how responsive the country can be towards interdependent sustainability linkages that will be affected due to climate change and possible food and energy crises. Organic farming will provide food security and will also create new avenues for potential business in the form of a new global market for organic agricultural products. This will help in expanding Bhutan’s household income and its economy and bring improvements in national health as well.

However, Bhutan’s move towards organic farming will negatively impact some stakeholders. Even though Bhutan’s agricultural sector is “partially organic,” having used traditional farming techniques to date, the shift will cause a stir. One of the key stakeholders to suffer will be the farmers. On the one hand, they can look forward to better incomes through high quality production, marketing of organic products and efficient farming practices. On the other, while the farmers may enjoy some prime benefits, frequent spells of extreme and unpredictable weather will severely hamper the production of crops that are harvested without chemicals.

Farmers in Paro, a large farming district in Bhutan that practices subsistence and commercial farming, are already facing such constraints. With every cultivation cycle, farmers face great difficulty in growing enough to feed their families and to sell. Government officials reporting from the area say that they have to distribute fertilizer as well as pesticides in large quantities in order to help the farmers meet the growing demand. One of the most affected types of crop is the chili crop which  now requires more pesticides as compared to previous years.

Farmers who previously relied on organic farming are now facing difficulties not only because of the erratic nature of the weather but also due to the cultural shift in Bhutan where children are now studying. As a result, there are fewer hands to help on the farm and without fertilizers there is lesser capacity to grow more.

While on the consumer side, organic farming will bring healthier forms of agricultural produce to the market but it will also expose the consumers to cheaper imported alternatives. This situation might worsen if the products are largely used to instigate exports as there is a growing global market for organically grown products and create a dearth locally.

Nonetheless, challenging situations are pertinent to initiatives rolled out on a macro level. Bhutan, as well as other parts of Asia, where small farm holders are abundant, is developing new techniques to counter the loss of soil quality and is looking at ways to grow more while staying within the parameters of organic farming.

One such method is the placement of the “Sustainable Root Intensification’ (SRI) system, which has been designed to standardize the amount of water required by the crop and the right age at which the seedlings are to be planted out. This new SRI technique has yielded results in form of doubled organic produce without the use of any synthetic crop enhancers. Besides SRI, initiatives are underway to revise the amount of irrigated land under use and increase the use of the traditional methods that do not require a heavy installment of inputs and are pest resistance.

This shift to organic farming will be useful as far as the export base of Bhutan is concerned. Bhutan exports around 100 tons of red rice to USA and Europe every year. With its ability and inclination to expand further towards organic agriculture, the country can also enter the export markets of China and India. 

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