There is an ancient saying – Healthy soil, healthy food, healthy body

Is Bhutan trapped by aid-driven climate smart agriculture talking only about value chains and markets?

Can Bhutan fulfill the dream of achieving food-self sufficiency without investing in healthy soils and healthy waters?

We live in a world where the last 80 years of modern agriculture is shaped by post World War II chemicals turned into fertilizers (phosphates, nitrogen, chlorine to name a few). These chemicals, after the war, quietly found its way -with the blessings of the same forces who used it for war- to be turned into fertilizers, water purifying agents etc. Thus was born our modern day high tech agriculture. Does it surprise anyone that it does not bring us good health? Yet we are still carrying on with modern agriculture without paying any attention to the root cause of  how and why our food system has become so toxic, how our health has become so precarious.

Globally we have chosen selective amnesia as our safety net. Forget the past, move forward.. pretend everything is okay… believe that our status comes from being able to shop at supermarket, eat food that has more artificial colorants and packaging than nutrients. This dangerous approach of turning a blind eye to a global system of money and markets, not using our critical thinking faculties, not questioning, taking our natural eco-system for granted is already causing more devastation to smaller countries like Bhutan.

It is a widely accepted scientific fact that synthetic fertilisers interfere with soil biology, suppressing the uptake of beneficial nutrients while releasing other heavy metals and carcinogenic chemicals. An example of synthetic phosphate induced uptake is cadmium, proven to be a major carcinogenic. Nitrogen fertilizers have a similar story of interference, nitrates enter our water ways. Water soluble chemicals find their way to our drinking water, and food accumulating pretty quickly in our liver and kidneys. After a while when the body’s flushing system is overloaded, these toxins start creating other pathways to escape, causing fatal diseases. Another study that came out recently shows how atmospheric carbon gets absorbed by forests is leading to run-away-growth storing far more sugar, what the scientists are calling junk-food-syndrome in plants. Adding to the already high sugar content modern food, climate change is forcing more sugar uptake and less nutrients especially with depleted soils and polluted waters. We wonder why we have an epidemic of diabetes.

Often findings from scientific studies are suppressed by powerful fertiliser companies. Counter studies are carried out to prove these chemicals are safe. The absence of a culture of critical thinking makes it easy for such corporations to lure the younger generations with the glitz of big money and status. In Bhutan this is very evident. The educated young do not find it fashionable to eat traditional food, or work on the land. The lure of urban jobs and instant success leads them to the cities only to find there are no jobs. Bhutan has 43% unemployment in the urban educated youth. Social media, and the urban centred approach to development plays into the false aspirations of the young, making it difficult for the youth to sustain life in rural areas.

With such a small population and pristine eco-system, it should be an easy task for the government to collaborate with educated youth to turn around rural migration to locally sustainable developmental models, through building healthy soils, waters and healthy food system as a radical revolutionary agenda for Gross National Happiness.

Instead the emphasis is on techno-parks and IT industry and other urban based industries that simply are not going to absorb the flood of rural migration, nor are these projects sustainable in the long run.

Bhutan is very much caught in a conundrum. Having GNH as a currency at political level is not enough to save the soils and waters. Bhutan needs a simple common sense strategy to build the depleted soils, regenerate water ways and create a vibrant local food system and lateral network of diversified niche markets instead of large cash crop based programs that are bound to fail as global markets fail and demands change.

As early as 1968 Dr. Swaminathan, the architect of India’s Green Revolution forewarned that without conservation of soil fertility and soil structure, intensive cultivation of land would ultimately result in depleted soil. He also highlighted that the indiscriminate use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides are bound to increase the incidence of cancer and other diseases due to the toxic residues present in the crops.

Learning from past mistakes does not seem to go with smart development packaged with a linear focus on trade and market economics.

This is my tenth trip to Bhutan.  It continues to bother me every trip the number of funerals my friends and colleagues seem to attend on a regular basis. The age of people succumbing to these ailments are worrying, all in the prime of their youth, often in their late thirties or forties.

Can Bhutan turn a blind eye to what is happening to the health of her people? Is it not self-evident that food system based on cheap imports; proliferation of supermarkets with cheap food outlets and the use of chemicals even within the country are the root cause of these fatal disease patterns among the young. Can Bhutan afford the current agribusiness models being proposed by aid agencies without any focus on natural ways of building soil, water and nutrient dense food.

Going organic definitely is not an option as it immediately eliminates the ordinary people who do not have the purchasing power to buy exorbitantly expensive organic produces.

The majority of rural folks are already suffering from draught, disappearing springs and streams – their main source of drinking and farming.

Bhutan will benefit from permaculture ideas of how to build simple healthy soils, and simple designs to revive disappearing streams and springs. Initiated and implemented by local authorities each province should embark on permaculture designs that is unique to that particular eco-system.

Instead of fighting to implement globalised homogenised models of development that is based on large scale funding and external technologies, hands-on-integrated permaculture centres can train local youth for a fraction of the cost of these heavy funded projects. Such local projects will turn around the myth that educated youth don’t stay in rural farms and work on land. Opening multiple pathways locally for the next generation is far better in terms of long-term sustainability, investing in local livelihoods that sustains and builds local soil, water and food nexus in the regions which are already suffering from migration and climate chaos.

Instead, Bhutan is being lured by big funded projects for Climate Smart Agriculture –the role of building soil or the connection between good soils and good food simply does not feature in such high-profile reports. Trade, value chains and markets and technology is the focus. We need to remind ourselves that funded projects seldom has the interest of the recipient countries other than for trade.

My work in Bhutan has been in the interface of climate change-integrated water resilient farming- and food systems. To ensure that local farmers can sustain resilient methods of water regeneration even with no tanks or pipes. When the rains are so erratic, where is the common sense for pipes and tanks as the solution for water harvesting? Any resilient water system must focus on regenerating the whole eco-system, including reviving ground water, springs and water-ways through building healthy soils, a totally different long term approach to water harvesting than the one that advocates tanks and engineered solutions. Soil is the sponge that stores water.

Measures need to be put in place for building good soils for absorbing and retaining water over a long period in the ground. Designs to soak, sink and spread excess water during the rainy season allow ground water discharge and release water for summer use. Integrated diverse natural food forests will lead to good water resilience. When water is stored in the soil, recharge and revival of streams and springs takes place as a natural phenomena. Farmers in Bhutan still rely on springs and streams for drinking and farming, a sensible approach than the high cost of irrigation.

Good soil building through natural ways, using permaculture designs are cost effective, long lasting, and works with the terrain using gravity and soil as the key to distribute water. Farmers understand simple no-sense ways of working with the land. This is common-sense technology, which is being fast replaced with specialist technology that does not empower the farmer, does not harness and improve old ways. Enabling and empowering local farmers to build on what they know, increase their confidence in what they are doing. Pride and dignity is the key to local ownership, to turn around the younger folk.

As Bill Mollison, the father of permaculture put it simply – earth care, people care, and fair share is what drives permaculture. Surely this should ring a note of resonance for Bhutan who upholds Happiness as a motto?

Climate Smart Agriculture designed for value chains, is not clearly focusing on local resilience in soil and water and definitely not focusing to produce nutrient-dense food for the health and well-being of the people of Bhutan.

With no healthy soils, no healthy waters and no nutrient-dense local food, there is no health. How can anyone claim happiness with no health?

Healthy soils, healthy waters and nutrient dense healthy food surely must be the foundation for a climate smart agriculture in a country of happiness.


Contributed by  Nirmala Nair 

 NAPA II Climate Change Consultant for Tarayana, School of Practical   Sustainability,

Cape Town, South Africa