Less than 1 percent of total arable land certified organic as of 2020
Vision 2020: Agriculture: In an effort to make agriculture more sustainable and establish a resilient, productive organic farming system while preserving the environment, Bhutan embraced the ambitious goal of becoming the world’s first 100 percent organic nation by 2020.
Three days passed the 2020 deadline, Bhutan today has achieved only about 10 percent in organic agriculture production with just about 545 hectares of crop land (less than 1 percent of total arable land) certified organic.
The country today has only two internationally certified products, lemon grass and essential oil produced by BioBhutan and 20 products certified by local organic assurance system.
Currently, only 24 farmer cooperatives, three organic retailers and one exporter is involved in organic production and marketing in the country.
Since the establishment of National Organic Programme (NOP) in 2008, the consumption of synthetic fertilizers used in Bhutan remained stable, while the use of pesticides even increased with an average annual growth rate of 11.8 percent, which attributed to labour shortages, according to a study which assessed the economy-wide impacts of Bhutan’s proclaimed 100 percent organic policy.
In order to become wholly organic, the country intended to phase out the use of harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Part of the 100 percent organic policy rationale was to promote Bhutan as an organic brand, which would help commercialise smallholder agriculture, alleviate poverty, and add value to the tourism sector.
However, on a pragmatic level, achieving the target proved impractical, especially given the significant challenges involved, including the fact that the country currently imports 45 to 50 percent of the domestic rice requirement from India and other countries.
Given the compulsions of ensuring food self-sufficiency and security and a desire to attain import substitution in agriculture, there was a slow transition of Bhutanese agriculture towards an organic sustainable farming system since the 1960s, according to agriculture officials.
For the agriculture and forests ministry (MoAF), the priority and challenge is to meet the national self-sufficiency while keeping the agriculture systems largely organic.
A study in 2017 found organic crop yields on average, 24 percent lower than conventional yields.
The experimental processes to promote organic farming began in 2003, followed by institutionalised programs promoted to implement the National Framework for Organic Farming for Bhutan (NFOFB) in 2007 and the establishment of the NOP in 2008.
The ministry has adopted an Organic Masterplan in 2012, backed up by a roadmap for the 12th plan, which laid out organic agriculture development strategies from 2018 to 2023.
But despite recognising the organic programme and giving it a status to take up national organic agenda, it did not have adequate resources to meet the desired goals, an official said. “The organic agriculture received relatively lower priority in the 11th Plan.”
Despite efforts to translate the organic vision into reality, at the present context, organic agriculture is faced with different challenges.
Empirical data relating to organic agriculture is largely unavailable and there is a need of emphasis to generate alternatives to organic farming.
The country’s attempt to encourage farmers to produce for the domestic and international market, so far only reached single cash crops such as potato, hazelnut and cardamom.
In potato and rice farming communities, farmers were apparently encouraged to significantly increase the amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides over the last couple of years.
Only Gasa dzongkhag has been fully organic since 2004.
The organic sector today is affected by a number of issues related to markets and value chains, including lack of appropriate supply-and-demand-side mechanisms such as absence of price premiums and low consumer awareness.
Organic producers who gathered at a regional symposium on organic agriculture in Paro last month said that promoting and marketing organic products was difficult.
Dawa Tshering, the producer of Organic Moringa Oleifere Tea, based at the Start up Centre in the capital, said one of the biggest challenges confronting organic entrepreneurs was inadequate consumer awareness in the domestic market.
“Even when the products were sold at reasonable prices, many consumers prefer imported products,” he said.
Another challenge, he said was insufficient technical and financial services, and poor policy support.
Another organic producer, Kamal Pradhan, who manufactures organic fertilizer, vermin compost and chicken manure at Bhu Org Farm in Gelephu, said that farmers are used to using chemical fertilizers to increase the yield.
He said that when it comes to organic product, people usually associate with higher prices. “They are not aware of the enriched composting and beneficial micronutrients present in the fertilizer.”
For Pema Gyalpo, the producer of organic cleaning and bathing products, insufficient raw materials and absence of advanced technology are problems.
“There is enough demand for my products, particularly from the tourism service sectors, but unavailability of raw materials for all season hinders the production,” he said.
To address such shortcomings, Pema Gyalpo is currently planning to expand plantation of Loofa plants and looking into high-tech technology to scale-up production.
The government so far has helped organic entrepreneurs in capacity development and skills enhancement by providing trainings and networking platforms.
With prioritising National Organic Flagship Programme (NOFP) for the development of organic sector in the current Plan, organic producers remain hopeful that the demand for the region’s organic products in both national and international markets would further grow.
The National Organic Flagship Programme (NOFP) aims to improve the integration of the agriculture sector with its sub-sectors of livestock and forestry.
Programme Manager of NOFP, Kezang Tshomo said that organic programme would encourage organic production and value chain development that will enable marketing of certified labeled and branded products.
“The government will also support linkages related to market and organic inputs in addition to cost sharing support for farm equipment, infrastructures such as compost shed, and processing equipment, among others,” she added.
The country now targets to achieve 100 percent organic by 2035.