By Erin Levi
Pinched between India and China, two of the most polluted and populous countries in the world, Bhutan is an anomaly: Tiny (in size and population), carbon-neutral, and committed to conservation, mandating that 60 percent of its forests remain protected.
But above all, this Buddhist kingdom, which measures its development by Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead of GDP, recently gained newfound media attention for aiming to become the first organic country by 2020. With herbicides and meat farms on the rise and less than five years to go, that goal is still very much a green dream.
The idea first appeared in the National Framework for Organic Farming in Bhutan in 2006, a document that posited that organic farming offered a sustainable model and “a symbol of a healthy living with nature and respect for all sentient beings.” The plan called for a complete overhaul of Bhutan’s agriculture system, which historically had been subsistence farming and animal husbandry until the 1960s, when pesticides were first introduced to encourage development.
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The plan called for the development of organic standards. A decade later, officials are still working on that, so most food goes from farm to market without labels. It also calls for the education of farmers in organic methods, such as composting and bio-pest control, the hazards of herbicides or fertilizers, and suitable crops. Subsidies would be given to organic farmers because organic farming is more labor intensive and because in markets, conventional and organic products are sold at the same price and conventional products from India are even cheaper (imported because Bhutan has trouble producing enough food for itself). There is hope that organic farming will create job opportunities, but many young people think farming is backwards and are leaving rural areas for the capital city, Thimphu, which is why the use of herbicides has more than doubled in the past 15 years, according to Kuensel, Bhutan’s English-language newspaper.
Despite these challenges, a few private entities, civil-society organizations, and NGOs are working towards the goal. The Samdrup Jongkhar Initiative has trained more than 1,000 farmers and local agriculture officers in organic farming and aims to make Samdrup Jongkhar the first fully organic district in Bhutan. Bio Bhutan sells the only internationally certified organic product in the country, a zesty lemongrass essential oil cultivated in eastern Bhutan, and supports gainful employment in rural areas. Lotus Foods grows organic Bhutanese red rice to sell internationally, including many health food stores in the U.S. And MyBhutan, a new NGO and travel portal, is in the midst of launching an organic brewery and producing its first batch of organic honey, which it plans to sell overseas next year.
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Luxury lodges like Uma by COMO and Amankora boast onsite gardens, which grow fresh produce like basil, edible flowers, mint, turnips, pumpkins, kale, and varietals of Bhutanese chilies, among other vegetables and herbs, and support organic suppliers like the Himalayan Chef’s Garden. Amankora’s executive chef Christian Brinkley says that 80 percent of what they serve is organic. And Bhutan Homestay, which has a network of organic farm- and home-stays throughout the country, channels 2 percent of the proceeds into a community fund supporting organic agriculture.
On my last trip, I stayed with a jovial vegetable and dairy farmer, Tashi Wangmo, at her lofty heritage home in Bumthang’s Ura Valley. By her warm kitchen hearth, she showed me photos from her trips to Austria, where she learned organic dairy practices and in return taught the Austrians how to make momos. This was thanks to the Bhutan-Network, an Austrian NGO that brings farmers from Bhutan to learn organic farming in Austria for eight weeks at a time.
For now, the Buddhist government is prioritizing its end goal over meeting a deadline. “I am not worried that we may or may not be organic by 2020,” says Kesang Tshomo, the National Organic Programme coordinator. “It is good enough to know that we are working towards it and the direction has not changed.”
Erin Levi is the author of the Bradt Travel Guides’ forthcoming guide to Bhutan.
Rodale's Organic Life (Politics), December 18, 2015