Organic farming in Bhutan – a way of life but also hard work for happiness

September 05, 2014.  

Achieving “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) has been at the core of national politics and aspirations in Bhutan since 2008. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.  Through collaboration with an international group of scholars and empirical researchers the Centre for Bhutan Studies further defined these four pillars into eight general contributors to happiness—physical, mental and spiritual health; time-balance; social and community vitality; cultural vitality; education; living standards; good governance; and ecological vitality. Implementing organic farming in Bhutan is a component of achieving ecological vitality. The royal government of Bhutan declared to be fully organic country by 2020. Sixty-nine percent of Bhutan’s population are farmers.

Doctoral research from, in and on Bhutan

Organic farming is increasingly being promoted worldwide as a better alternative to conventional farming in terms of producing healthy food and alleviating poverty. It is also considered more sustainable because it causes relatively less environmental damage”, tells Sonam Tashi, an agricultural scientist conducting his doctoral research at the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn (ZEF).  Mr. Tashi, a citizen from Bhutan himself, conducts a feasibility study of Bhutan’s organic plans by comparing the performance of organic and conventional farming.  Therefore he looks into factors such as yield, soil nutrient status, cost-benefits and socio-economics and analyzes support provisions, including policies towards achieving the country’s ambitious goal of going fully organic by 2020. “Given a set of constraints prevalent in Bhutan and in the face of the increasing influence of conventional farming, I am analyzing how and to what technological, management and social extent organic farming can meet the expectations”, he explains.

Field research: diving into the rice fields

Mr. Tashi, who was awarded a price for academic excellence by the King of Bhutan in 2012 for his outstanding academic records in the country, spent 21 months in total over the past three years investigating and interviewing around 750 farmers located in 20 districts in different climatic and altitude zones in Bhutan. Half of these farmers are into organic farming practices, and the other half consists of conventional farmers. “I focused on paddy rice cultivation, since rice is one of my country’s main agricultural products”, relates Mr. Tashi. “Bhutan consumes 172 kilogram per capita per year. On top of our own production, we have to import 50% of our rice consumption from abroad, mainly India. So the whole idea about organic farming makes not only sense from an ecological perspective, but also from an economic one. We need to become less import-driven and dependent on our neighbors India and Bangladesh”, states Mr. Tashi. In addition to working with farmers, Mr Tashi conducted interviews with groups of experts and met with at least 50 key informants, such as officials of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, policies makers, organic traders, as well as representatives of farmer and consumer associations.

Organic farming: challenges and constraints

There are still a lot of challenges to overcome with organic farming in Bhutan”, says Mr. Tashi. “Organic farming, though theoretically based on the principles of low-cost and low-input such as fertilizers, also has its price. First of all, organic farming is mainly small-scale farming, which means farmers generally have less yield and produce to sell. Furthermore, this type of farming is labor-intensive, especially if you keep in mind that Bhutan consists of up to 70% of forests – spread over hills and mountains. The government has stipulated that this level of forest cover has to be maintained. Fifty-one percent of our land is so-called protected area. So, you have many regulations to stick to as a farmer, which limits your options. Most farming areas are surrounded by forests, full of wildlife, which poses further challenges in terms of protecting your farm land. Last but not least: To be competitive in the international market for organic products, you have to certify and label them, which is a complicated and above all expensive process to follow”.

Solutions: preliminary insights

At the moment, Mr. Tashi is in Germany at his host institute ZEF, analyzing and synthesizing his data and findings.  Although he has not come up with final conclusions yet, he definitely sees a need for more support for Bhutan’s farmers. “Bhutan may be statistically one of the happiest countries in the world, it does not belong to the monetarily richest”, Mr. Tashi says. “Our main sources of income consist of exports of hydropower, tourism, construction and agriculture. Bhutan has no seaside and therefore no ports, so exports costs via air are too high. In addition to financial support, farmers need to be trained to succeed in organic farming methods. We actually do get support, e.g. from India (Vandana Shiva Foundation), which has extensive training programs for organic farmers in India and has conducted trainings in Bhutan as well. We also receive help from Japan in developing and improving agricultural technologies. But still, in my opinion as an academic, more needs to be done to make the whole endeavor a success story”, Mr. Tashi concludes.

Eventually, the study will integrate the results of field experiments, survey interviews and experts’ group interviews as well as discussions to draw conclusions on the prospects of organic farming in Bhutan and to derive the constraints and conditions, under which organic farming should be recommended at farm level. It is also expected that the findings of the study will contribute to the national knowledge base for developing sustainable agricultural policies.

His Majesty the King of Bhutan awarded Sonam Tashi, ZEF junior researcher and DAAD scholar from Bhutan, with the National Order of Merit for academic excellence in 2012. Sonam Tashi is one of the few professionals working in organic farming sector in his country.

In addition, Mr. Tashi was appointed Research Ambassador by DAAD in August 2014.

The interview was conducted by Alma van der Veen


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Sonam Tashi

Sonam Tashi