The use of chemical fertiliser is high in cash crop-growing regions such as Wangdue and Bumthang. Replacing 30 percent of chemical fertilisers with organic alternatives is challenging considering the current circumstances.

Yangyel Lhaden

Since the inception of chemical fertiliser usage in the 1960s to enhance agricultural productivity, the country’s import of chemical fertilisers rose from 319 metric tonnes (MT) in 1977 to a remarkable 3,604 MT by 2020, reflecting a substantial surge in demand over the decades.

In 2019, Bhutan set a lofty aim of becoming the world’s first 100 percent organic nation by 2020. However, the target was postponed to 2035. One of the key strategies to accomplish this objective was the complete elimination of chemical fertilisers.

According to locals in Gangtey-Phobjikha, Wangdue where commercial farmers predominantly cultivate potatoes as their main cash crop, fully transitioning from chemical fertilisers to organic alternatives is unattainable.

Dawa Tshering, a farmer from Gangtey, said: “It would be difficult to work on land with only organic fertilisers. If we do not apply chemical fertilisers, our potatoes only grow to the size of berries.”

According to locals, farmers in these valleys typically use chemical fertilisers ranging from 125kg to 500kg per acre of land, comprising a blend of Suphala and Single Superphosphate (SSP). They supplement this with organic fertilisers whenever feasible. The extent of chemical fertiliser usage on their farms is contingent upon affordability.

At the dzongkhag level, the recommended quantity of chemical fertiliser per acre of land for potato cultivation varies depending on the type used. As per the National Soil Services Centre (NSSC), if urea is employed, it’s advised to apply 114kg of urea along with 105kg of SSP and 111kg of Muriate of Potash (MOP) per acre. In case of Suphala, the recommended application is 105kg of Suphala, accompanied by 77kg of urea and 83kg of MOP per acre.

While there is currently no data on the actual usage of chemical fertilisers in the fields at the national level due to farmers’ reluctance to openly disclose this information, a recent study conducted by NSSC on soil testing revealed that the soil quality in Phogjikha-Gangtey is within an acceptable range. However, it was noted that the phosphorous level in Gangtey exceeds the acceptable range.

Specialist III with NSSC, Suraj Chhetri, said that surplus phosphorus in the soil could lead to leaching, where it may be washed away during soil erosion. “The excessive application of chemical fertilisers, beyond what plants can effectively absorb, may contribute to additional greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbating the impacts of climate change.”

The use of chemical fertiliser is high in cash crop-growing regions such as Wangdue and Bumthang.

An agriculture official highlighted the high potential for the country to transition into organic farming, citing numerous pockets across the nation where farmers have abstained from using chemical fertilisers, weedicides, or pesticides.

“The per capita use of chemical fertilisers in the country is relatively low compared to neighbouring nations,” the official explained. “Moreover, due to the prevalence of smallholder farmers, the overall use of chemical fertilisers at the national level is not considered alarming.”

According to the National Fertiliser Strategy and Action Plan (NFSAP) 2023-2030, the country annually imports around 3,500 MT of chemical fertilisers. The fertiliser usage per acre of arable land is reported to be 5.43kg per acre or 13.41kg per hectare (ha), while per acre of cultivable area, it stands at 14.41kg per acre or 36kg per ha. In contrast, in Nepal, the chemical fertiliser use is notably higher at 86.9kg per ha, and in Bangladesh, it reaches 318.5kg per ha.

Between 2020 and 2021, Wangdue received the highest share of chemical fertiliser distribution at 24 percent, while Bumthang received 17 percent, according to NFSAP. Bumthang reported using 84kg per acre of chemical fertilisers, whereas Wangdue used 58kg per acre during the same period.

Farmers in Gangtey and Phobjikha say that they could reduce their dependency on chemical fertilisers and increase the use of organic fertilisers if they receive adequate support.

Tandin Wangchuk from Gangtey said that due to the absence of fallow land in his gewog, the organic fertilisers were insufficient to nourish the soil. As a solution, he adopts a practice of alternating between applying organic manure once every two years and using chemical fertilisers throughout the year.

The NFSAP’s aim is to increase annual organic fertiliser production targets to 15,260MT by 2030 from 3,200MT in 2023. To achieve this, the goal is to incrementally increase organic fertiliser production by 25 percent each year until 2030.

In the Low Emission Development Strategy for Food Security 2021, the government has identified and prioritised the transition from synthetic to organic fertilisers as a mitigation action to curb emissions. The strategy aims for a consistent reduction in chemical fertiliser use, targeting a linear decrease of five percent each year, calculated based on the volume of fertilisers used in the baseline scenario.

According to the NFSAP, replacing 30 percent of chemical fertilisers with organic alternatives is challenging considering the current circumstances. Instead, the strategy has opted for a 25 percent annual increase in organic fertiliser usage. This will be accomplished through scaling up production with improved efficiency, establishing new production units, and maximising the operational capacity of existing units.

“The international market demands organic produce, presenting a lucrative opportunity for our farmers. However, the main hurdle we face is the inability to meet the required volume,” said an agriculture official. “To truly benefit our farmers, it’s imperative to ramp up our organic produce. This necessitates comprehensive policy measures and unwavering support from the government.”

Tandin Wangchuk said that, ultimately, what matters most for farmers like him is the ability to support their livelihoods. “Even if our farm produces less through the use of solely organic fertilisers, it’s acceptable as long as we can earn enough to sustain ourselves,” he said. “This underscores the critical need for government support.”

Tandin Wangchuk expressed the hardships faced by farmers like him, stating, “We have been experiencing losses year after year, yet we continue to tend to our potato farm as our entire livelihood depends on it.”





This story is supported by Bhutan Media Foundation under GEF-Small Grants Programme of the UNDP