In a bold move back in 2019, Bhutan embarked on an ambitious endeavor – to transform itself into the world’s first entirely organic nation by 2020. The objective was clear: cultivate a sustainable agricultural system, fortify resilient organic farming practices, and safeguard the environment for future generations.
The pledge, introduced through the National Organic Flagship Programme (NOFP) under the umbrella of the National Organic Programme (NOP), was subsequently deferred to 2035, recognizing the complexities involved in this transformative shift.
Fast-forwarding over four years, questions have arisen regarding the realization of this goal. Doubts hover around the envisioned increase in organic production, employment prospects, enterprise development, and the pursuit of import substitution. Some even speculate the potential shutdown of the NOFP.
Nevertheless, Agriculture and Livestock Minister Yeshey Penjor maintains that both initiatives have undergone strategic refinement. Adapting to the exigencies of the pandemic, the government recalibrated its financial allocation, dedicating Nu 650 million out of the initially planned Nu 1 billion for the NOFP. However, the NOP’s budget remains undisclosed, according to an official associated with the program.
This strategic realignment aims to invigorate organic production, its marketing, the reinforcement of organic regulatory mechanisms, and the promotion of sustainable livelihoods.
Advisor at the Organic Sector Development, NOFP, Kesang Tshomo, elucidates that the 100 percent organic target encompassed food crops, livestock, and forest produce, all integrated under a comprehensive plan and investment strategy. Regrettably, the necessary investments weren’t forthcoming until 2020.
Tshomo elaborates that the initial phase primarily concentrated on crafting educational and advocacy materials, establishing a supportive ecosystem, training staff and farmers, and formulating regulations, standards, and certification guidelines for both farmers and the private sector.
Between 2019 and 2020, Bhutan invested Nu 97 million, resulting in the production and sale of 1,418 metric tonnes of goods valued at Nu 167 million within its borders.
In light of the pandemic, the range of organic commodities was curtailed from 12 to three – buckwheat, ginger, and turmeric – with a budget of Nu 377 million allocated.
Presently, the landscape involves 110 farm co-operatives and 696 farmer groups participating in organic production and marketing across the country. These include 415 agricultural farmer groups and 23 agricultural cooperatives, as per the Department of Marketing Cooperatives.
Looking ahead, the ministry envisions bolstering technical support through research and technology development, enhancing the capacity for organic regulation and certification to meet global demands, accrediting the Bhutan Organic Guarantee system, among other strategic initiatives.
Notably, Bhutan recently embraced the Geographical Indication initiative, which seeks to safeguard the origin, distinct attributes, and organic certification of its products.
The road to organic sustainability presents its share of challenges. The lack of certification continues to hinder access to export markets. Kesang Tshomo underscores the priority accorded to food security compared to organic milestones, emphasizing the need for government and consumer support to achieve national targets.
Currently, only four products in Bhutan hold international certification – lemon grass oil, edible flowers, ginger, and blue pine essential oil. Additionally, there are 65 products certified under Bhutan Organic Standard. However, these certifications from the Bhutan Food and Drug Authority are solely recognized in Singapore for current exports.
Farmers, Tshomo notes, are yet to reap the benefits of organic premiums and certification. The financial burden of certification falls squarely on their shoulders.
In tandem with its organic vision, Bhutan aims to phase out the use of harmful chemicals in agriculture. Allegations of chemical overuse loom large, even as fertilizers and pesticides continue to be imported to ensure food security and income generation for basic crops. Oversight of chemical supply and distribution is managed by the National Soil Services Centre, the National Plant Protection Centre, and the Bhutan Food and Drug Authority.