Bhutan’s Organic Approach to Life

Bhutan, a small country bordering India and China, has decided to go completely organic in terms of farming. The country recently banned pesticides and herbicides and is using animal and farm waste as substitutes. In addition to its policy of embracing Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the indicator of well-being, the decision is another reason why Bhutan has been subject to much media attention.

Bhutan’s agriculture Minister Lyonpo Pema Gyamtsho recently released a message on the Bhutanese Agricultural Ministry website which outlined some of the core policies in terms of organic farming. Gyamtsho declared that “a good start has been made in terms of greening our farming system and moving towards organic farming. A draft Master Plan was formulated and is currently under review. It stipulates that while we aspire to go organic, this has to be done in a phased and pragmatic manner bearing in mind the implications an overnight shift would have, on our food security as well as rural livelihoods and income. Therefore, a step by step, crop by crop, region by region, long-term transformation process is proposed rather than a blanket quick-fix approach.”

He also added that “the sustainable land management programme has shown how unproductive and erosion-prone land can be made productive with the introduction of appropriate technologies such as terracing, hedge row planting, live fencing, log check dam, and so on. This would indeed be a key strategy towards adapting to adverse impacts of climate change and ensuring farm productivity.”

It is clear from this message that the intention to go organic is at the core of Bhutan’s government policy. However, many have argued that the task would be extremely hard to accomplish. Climate change pressures demonstrated by the erratic increase of temperature or precipitation, and cultural changes such as young people migrating from the countryside making labour for farming more scarce, are important obstacles in the way of becoming completely organic.

The Bhutanese government is conducting the National Organic Program (NOP), which provides training on organic agriculture technologies. Minister Lyonpo Pema Gyamtsho also declared that his country “is a mountainous terrain; when we use chemicals they don’t stay where we use them, they impact the water and plants. We say that we need to consider all the environment. Most of our farm practices are traditional farming, so we are largely organic anyway. But we are Buddhists, too, and we believe in living in harmony with nature. Animals have the right to live; we like to see plants happy and insects happy.”

Bhutan’s decision to go organic is also influenced by Buddhist philosophy, which could come handy for many policy makers in the West, who tend to perceive nature as a separate entity and source to be exploited. There are many lessons to be learned from Bhutan in terms of perceptions towards nature and natural resources. For instance, Article 5.3 of the Bhutanese Constitution predicates that “the Government shall ensure that, in order to conserve the country’s natural resources and to prevent degradation of the ecosystem, a minimum of sixty percent of Bhutan’s total land shall be maintained under forest cover for all time.” It is hardly conceivable that many countries today would maintain 60 percent of their total land under forest cover.

In terms of sustainable agriculture, the case of Bhutan relates to the local Trent Lands development discussions. The plan for the development of the endowment lands had sustainable agriculture at its core. During the discussions in the second consultation many people argued that sustainable practices must be put in place in order to safeguard the river’s ecosystem. It was also argued that the current agricultural lands surrounding Trent must be preserved and accounted for through green farming. Following Bhutan’s example of agriculture, farming and production may be an option.

As the champion of the GNH index, the decision to go organic shows consistency in Bhutan’s government policy. Becoming 100 percent organic resonates with the happiness index and further recognizes that healthy environments provide a safer and more enjoyable surrounding for human development. Although the country may face increasingly difficult tasks in the path to becoming fully organic, they have already succeeded in fulfilling the most difficult of all: taking the first step.