The challenges of going organic in Bhutan
About two-hours drive from Paro town, in Ramtsethangkha, Tsento nine guides have come together to develop their ‘dream organic farm’. They have no experience of having worked in a farm but they are determined. They call themselves O farmers (organic farmers).
The team, although started farming a month ago, is currently learning from scratch. Sonam Tobgay, a member of the group, said that it was difficult to identify sprouts from the weeds.
The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed most Bhutanese, especially the young towards agriculture. Paro alone saw 10 organic farming groups after the outbreak of Covid-19. Most are from tourism and hotel business.
Majority of the farmers in Paro engage themselves into paddy cultivation. They depend highly on weedicides, according to Paro Dzongkhag’s Agriculture Officer (DAO), Tandin.
Kuenzang Norbu, 74, is worried. He said that the shortage of farmhands was the biggest challenge facing the farmers. “The use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides has increased over the years as it reduces the workload.”
For many farmers, going organic is labour-intensive and expensive. The acreage of arable land is also decreasing due to urban development. Pem, 59, can grow only paddy. “I don’t have dry land even if I want to grow organic vegetables.”
Labour shortage has also resulted in fallowing of land in Paro.
Young farmers may not have encountered significant problems yet, but they are worried.
With 80 per cent of the farmers in Paro entirely depending on chemical fertilisers, DAO Tandin said that it was a challenge to convince the farmers to go organic.
The dzongkhag agriculture office provides specific support to the organic farmers with the technical backing, greenhouse, water tank, irrigation pipe, seeds, electric fencing, and farm machinery.
Further, the dzongkhag is planning to open an organic vegetable outlet in Paro town.
Agriculture minister Yeshey Penjor said that no one was sure if the current claim about organic produce was in actual ‘organic’. He said that the people were focusing on growing natural products. “But we must understand the meaning of organic products.”
Bhutan embraced the ambitious goal of becoming the world’s first 100 percent organic nation by 2020. Bhutan as of January 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, lemongrass and essential oil produced by BioBhutan and 20 products certified by the 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.
Considering the cost of production, Lyonpo said that organic farming was difficult. “It should be carried out in a limited space. And it has to target the export market.”
The organic flagship budget of Nu 1.3B was not sufficient to set up the certification facilities, lyonpo said. “But Covid-19 won’t affect the flagship programme, as it is in the preparatory phase.”
The flagship programme’s main focus is on the development of inputs like bio-fertiliser, bio-pesticides and bio-weedicide.
For this fiscal year, around Nu 342 million from the programme was allocated for the production of organic manure, upscaling of selected crops and marketing.