Bhutan could within a decade become the first country in the world to go wholly organic in its food production, according to key politicians in the Himalayan kingdom.
Agriculture and Forests Minister Lyonpo Yeshey Dorji and Opposition leader Pema Gyamtsho, who held the post in the previous government, say there is a united commitment to rid the country of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
While no formal timeframe has been put in place, both politicians believe that the goal is within sight as long as practical natural solutions can be found to the pest and disease problems still affecting a few crops. In order to speed up the search for these answers, Bhutan recently brought together experts on organic agriculture from across the world.
“If we continue to have the same intensity of commitment and intention, then we should be able to do it in five or ten years,” says Gyamtsho, who estimates that around 70 per cent of produce is already grown without chemicals. “But on the other hand, if we just use it as a slogan, it might take 20 or 30 years or it may not take place at all. It really depends on how serious successive governments are in taking this forward.” Dorji says the new government is maintaining the previous administration’s strong commitment to organic agriculture but says any moves to eradicate chemicals needs to be done on a voluntary basis.
While he also says it is possible to become an organic nation within a decade, this is dependent on the government being able to “demonstrate that the benefits outweigh the costs and people should be willing and happy about the transition and choices. That means investment into agriculture research and support through conversion.” Despite the commitment from both main political parties, some experts within Bhutan worry that they are being too optimistic and that farmers are actually becoming increasingly reliant on chemical fertilisers. Many of the farmers in central and eastern Bhutan spoke of their reluctance to go fully organic as they believe their yields will fall, especially given weather patterns are becoming more erratic. Many growers, for example, say that chemical fertilisers increase the size of their potatoes, which makes it easier to find export markets in countries such as India.
However, Gyamtsho insists that the trend is in the opposite direction as farmers begin to recognise that chemicals are having a damaging effect on the quality of the soil.
“Farmers get quite excited when they use chemical fertilisers for the first time because they see that they have to do less work, less weeding,” he says. “But then over a period of time they see also the negative consequences.
“Many farmers now see that it destroys the soil and its water retention capacity so unless they increase the input year by year, they’re not getting the kind of returns that they were getting earlier.
“To develop this movement and change the mentality of the farmers, we need to take them to see land where yields are not being affected by using only natural fertilisers. If they are convinced then they will also adopt these practices.” Another issue that needs to be addressed if organic produce is to be economically viable is the lack of certification capacity within Bhutan. The first testing laboratory opened only recently.
Gyamtsho says the priority at the moment should be to satisfy regional markets that do not need the same level of third party oversight that buyers in Europe and the U.S. demand.
But as the country’s testing capacity grows, he says certification will be “a very important requirement not just for the export market but also for our people as they need to know what they’re eating.” He says the organic strategy is to take a step-by-step approach, advancing region-by-region, product-by-product and that new innovations are essential to find ways to naturally eradicate diseases and improve crop yields.
“We are looking for alternative solutions such as bio-pesticide,” he says. “The whole idea of having an international conference on organic ecology here is to tap into international expertise and resources available. So maybe we don’t have the solution for cabbages but somebody in Brazil may have.” Tim Hewitt, CEO of IDE, which creates income and livelihood opportunities for poor rural households and has been working in neighbouring Nepal, says it makes commercial sense for the country to move towards organic food production but warns of dangers from seeking to claim the eradication of all chemicals.
“Integrated pest management has worked very well in Nepal but there is a trade-off. You’re increasing the risk of loss of your harvest and you’re raising prices because your yields are lower.
“I would caution against making a blanket statement that the country is 100 per cent organic or aspires to be that way. Looking ahead, it will be difficult to maintain integrity if you claim something and people find out that’s not the case.”
© Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014