Bhutan is betting organic farming is the way to happiness: The Salt: NPR

A Bhutanese farmer puts her crop of chillies on the roof of a shed to dry it and protect it from wild boar, deer and monkeys in 2006.

James L. Stanfield/National Geographic/Getty Images

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James L. Stanfield/National Geographic/Getty Images

A Bhutanese farmer puts her crop of chillies on the roof of a shed to dry it and protect it from wild boar, deer and monkeys in 2006.

James L. Stanfield/National Geographic/Getty Images

The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan caught international attention a few years ago for declaring that gross national happiness should trump gross domestic product when measuring a nation’s progress. If you want to prioritize happiness, according to Bhutanese thought, you better include the environment and spiritual and mental well-being in your calculations. (Not everyone in Bhutan is happy, and many are leaving as refugees, as Human Rights Watch and others have noted.)

But Bhutan, which has a population of just 700,000 – most of whom are farmers – has another shot at international fame if it can fulfill its recent promise to become the first country in the world to convert to an agricultural system. 100% organic.

Last month, at the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley said his government was developing a national organic policy because the country’s farmers are increasingly convinced that “working in harmony together with nature, they can help maintain the flow of nature’s riches”. .”

Embarking on organic farming is an ambitious 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 ward off disease. and pests.

But Andre Leu, an Australian adviser to the Bhutanese government and president of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, says it is entirely doable.

“I don’t think it will be that difficult given that the majority of farmland is already organic by default,” Leu told The Salt.

Indeed, the chemicals and synthetic fertilizers that are so widely used in countries like the United States are only available and affordable to a few farmers in Bhutan who are widely dispersed across the rugged, mountainous terrain sandwiched between the India and China. But very few default organic farmers have been certified as such by third-party institutions. (By the way, certified organic foods make up less than 1% of global calories and are mostly available to affluent consumers.)

According to the World Food Programme, Bhutanese farmers mainly grow rice and maize, along with some fruits and vegetables, including potatoes and oranges. But as the demand for food has increased in recent years, the country has been forced to import rice and other foods from India, and today Bhutan is a net importer of food.

One of the few products that Bhutan exports to the United States is red rice; Lotus Foods sells it to chains like Whole Foods. Bhutanese red rice is more nutritious and nuttier in taste than white rice, its boosters say, and works well in pilaf, as Monica Bhide reported for NPR’s Kitchen Window earlier this year. The rice does not have organic certification, but Lotus Foods claims it has been grown without the use of pesticides or other chemical inputs for centuries.

The Department 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 produce more food and bring the country closer to self-sufficiency. The ministry is currently training extension officers in organic methods and giving farmers who opt for organic farming priority for government assistance.

Not everyone is sure that a 100% organic Bhutan is a good idea. Leu says he has encountered some resistance among Agriculture Ministry researchers who have been trained in conventional farming techniques overseas.

And an article last year in the Bhutan Observer notes that many farmers who grow export crops like apples, tangerines and potatoes already rely heavily on chemical fertilizers and might be reluctant to give them up.

Still, Leu is optimistic that Bhutan’s burgeoning organic agriculture research centers will eventually be able to come up with organic methods to increase yields and manage problems in these crops.

“All of these problems can be solved, they just need a few more years of research to find more effective solutions,” Leu said.

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