environment food

Bhutan – the world’s first organic country?

terracesThere’s a little article in the latest edition of Resurgence magazine that caught my eye – Bhutan is to move to 100% organic production in its agriculture.

Bhutan, you may remember, already has 100% renewable energy and is the only country in the world that pursues Gross National Happiness instead of Gross Domestic Product. It’s clearly a sustainability pioneer, but is this one step too far?

There will be plenty of skepticism, but it’s not the act of environmental idealism it initially appears. For starters, there are good reasons why Bhutan might find a blanket target more useful than other countries. Being mountainous, terraced farming is common, and that means that there are more problems with run-off than elsewhere. “Ours is a mountainous terrain” says the agriculture and forests minister Pema Gyamtsho. “When we use chemicals they don’t stay where we use them, they impact the water and plants.”

There’s also an economic incentive, as the plan will raise the value of Bhutan’s agricultural exports. There is growing interest in organic produce in India and China, so this is part of a strategy to tap into that appetite. Bhutan’s farmers could never compete on quantity or price, given the country’s size and geography, so this gives them an edge that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Many will assume that the trade-off will be a fall in food production, as it is widely believed that organic agriculture is less productive than conventional. But that depends. Much of the country’s agriculture is still small scale and uses traditional methods, and organic farming techniques are at their most effective in that context. The minister believes that production will rise, and the years of research and experimentation that precede the announcement suggest this isn’t wishful thinking.

However, that doesn’t mean a 100% organic plan is the unalloyed good that Resurgence magazine seems to think it is. Organic standards are, in my view, often far too stringent and take an unnecessarily all-or-nothing approach. Even in a small country, you can’t treat all crops and all farms exactly the same. A national ban on fertiliser and pesticide sales could wreck the livelihoods of farmers on less fertile soil, or whose crops are more susceptible to insect infestation. There will be opposition from some quarters, and how that is handled matters – coercing people into sustainable farming is hardly progressive.

Bhutan’s strategy will hopefully take this sort of thing into account, and Mr Gyamtsho recognises that it will take time. “We have set no deadline. We cannot do it tomorrow. Instead we will achieve it region by region and crop by crop.”

Personally, I don’t think 100% organic is the way to go for most places. It’s just too high a standard, and I think we need to break the dichotomy between conventional and organic agriculture. Organic food is something of a false ideal, and agriculture doesn’t need to be 100% organic to be sustainable. It’s about wisdom and moderation – not banning all chemical intervention, but using the best of modern science alongside the best of traditional techniques.

I can see why Bhutan have gone for a national goal, but I’d hesitate to recommend it to anyone else. It’s certainly a bold experiment, and I will be interested to see how it goes.


  1. Bhutan is a very interesting country that I keep seeing crop up in the news and academic journals with reports especially concentrated on their measurement of Gross Domestic Happiness. Being small, it looks like they are generally dismissed a lot of the time as some quaint little country that says amusing things from time to time, but I think they are giving some people a lot to think about.

    This is another example of Bhutan using their status as a country to get information out. Perhaps they will become savvy exporters of knowledge and alternative living.

    I’m not very convinced that completely organic agriculture is at a functional level where it can support the food demands of our global population, but our overuse of fertilizer should definitely be a cause for serious concern. National Geographic did a great piece on this in their “Fertilized World” article that showed some of the impacts of using too much fertilizer and had some examples where places that paid very close attention to the application of fertilizer achieved good results by containing fertilizer in the places where it was needed and not letting it leech into adjacent groundwater where it really takes off and causes problems.

    I too am interested to see if Bhutan can pull this off. If they are successful, perhaps there is the beginnings of a model that can be expanded upon. Without countries like this who take bold actions, we’re left with a system that looks like what we have today. It’s a wonderful experiment and I hope there is some good follow up to their trial run.

    1. Indeed, the argument over whether organic agriculture can feed the world sort of misses the point, because it doesn’t have to. There’s no doubt we need radical change, but the organic movement has been unhelpfully absolutist and we don’t need to go that far.

      Definitely a bold plan from Bhutan. For that alone it’s worth watching.

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