An Organic Mission: A Look at Bhutan’s Impressive Farming Initiative
At a time when buzz words like “local” and “organic” are often considered the domain of Whole Foods-frequenting Westerners, Bhutan—the little kingdom perched on the edge of the Himalayas—is one year into an impressive new goal on its national to-do list: converting to a completely organic agricultural system.
Though the bar is high, the pledge, announced a year ago at the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, may just be attainable. Bhutan’s farming community, which makes up a significant part of its population of just 700,000, has been largely unable to afford the synthetic chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers) that are inherent in the agricultural systems of many other parts of the world, and the country’s main export, Bhutanese red rice–often sold under the Lotus Foods label–has been grown without the use of chemicals for thousands of years. In addition, the idea of working more in harmony with nature is wholly on-message for the traditionally Buddhist country, and seems a natural fit for its largely devout population.
Globalization, however, has brought new challenges to Bhutan since the country opened to the world three decades ago. Shifting family structures mean that children who would have stayed at home to help their parents tend the crop may have gone off to school or left to work in Thimpu, the country’s capital. Many farmers struggle to feed themselves, let alone grow enough crops to sell, and those that can afford to will often turn to chemical farming in an effort to bridge the gap. The Ministry of Agriculture hopes that organic training initiatives for farmers and the creation of government assistance programs for those who adopt (or maintain) organic techniques will help to spearhead their efforts, while agricultural research centers work to improve organic methods and boost crop yields.
The paradox of forward thinking in this steadfastly traditional country has been Bhutan’s calling card—after all, this is the same place that measures its gross national happiness as an indicator of progress. One year into the announcement of its goal, all eyes continue to be on Bhutan as a test case for bringing small-scale organic agriculture to a national stage.
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