The Organic Kingdom: A vision for promoting health, economy and natural ecology of Bhutan
Make Bhutan a model nation for sustainable food system by leveraging its long-standing aspiration to become a 100% organic nation
Photo Credit: https://www.businessbhutan.bt/2019/01/15/a-long-way-to-go-before-achieving-food-self-sufficiency/
Photo Credit: GRID-Arendal resources library by: Yannick Beaudoin. https://www.flickr.com/photos/gridarendal/albums/72157674223490923
A case for re-prioritizing food production as a key development agenda, stressing that food security also has implications on national security
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Bhutan Ecological Society
Lead Applicant Organization Type
Small NGO (under 50 employees)
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
Bhutan, a small landlocked country between India and China, covers an area of 38,394 km^2.
What country is your selected Place located in?
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead
As a citizen of a country with less than a million inhabitants, I feel deeply responsible to contribute to my nation. Having lived and studied in US and Europe, I believe there is much Bhutan can learn from the world; but there is much more that the rest of the world can learn from Bhutan.
I believe Bhutan is important to the world because we already have a unique vision for development. Since 1970s, Bhutan recognized the futility and obsolescence of measuring “progress” of a country through a single lens: economics. Conceptualized as an alternative to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Gross National Happiness (GNH) takes a more holistic approach to development based on four pillars: environmental conversation, sustainable and equitable development, cultural preservation and good governance. GNH is founded on a clear understanding of a higher purpose for development that goes beyond the short term economic and material gains. GNH takes into account the interdependent nature of life on earth and thus calls for a harmonious relationship between human beings and the natural environment.
I wholeheartedly believe that Bhutan is well-positioned and well-prepared to pursue a bold vision in transforming our food systems. While we have adopted the dominant development model to an extent, we have felt considerable unease over both the means and objectives of such a model. Over the last 40 years, Bhutan has worked hard to infuse the GNH philosophy into our national policies; and we continue to try our best to take a considered approach to development. However, much more needs to be done to realize our GNH vision, and an even greater prudence is required to counter the global forces of the current paradigm.
The small size of the country and its population is an added advantage, especially in tackling the interconnected challenges.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Lunch time for two Meraki women. Photo Credit: © true_colours¬_of_bhutan (Instagram)
A little girl from the nomadic community of Merak, enjoys her lunch. Photo Credit: © true_colours¬_of_bhutan (Instagram)
Paro valley. Photo Credit: Richard Mortel. https://www.flickr.com/photos/prof_richard/albums/72157700559573715
Thimphu city. Photo Credit: Antonio Morales Garcia. https://www.flickr.com/photos/othermore/
The capital city (Thimphu). Photo Credit: GRID-Arendal resources library by: Yannick Beaudoin. https://www.flickr.com/photos/gridarendal/albums/72157674223490923
A typical rural community landscape. Photo Credit: GRID-Arendal resources library by: Yannick Beaudoin. https://www.flickr.com/photos/gridarendal/albums/72157674223490923
Dried red chillies, a Bhutanese favorite!
Homemade pickles for sale at the local market
Woman sells local red rice. Photo Credit: Antonio Morales Garcia https://www.flickr.com/photos/othermore/
Bags of imported rice outside a typical grocery store in Bhutan
Common vegetables sold and eaten in Bhutan. Photo Credit: GRID-Arendal resources library by: Yannick Beaudoin. https://www.flickr.com/photos/gridarendal/albums/72157674223490923
Woman selling local products in the market. Photo Credit: Antonio Morales Garcia https://www.flickr.com/photos/othermore/
Imported, packaged food overflows a shop in Thimphu
Typical local Bhutanese staples. Photo Credit: Antonio Morales Garcia https://www.flickr.com/photos/othermore/
Terraced paddy fields. Photo Credit: GRID-Arendal resources library by: Yannick Beaudoin. https://www.flickr.com/photos/gridarendal/albums/72157674223490923
Bhutan is a small landlocked country sandwiched between two giants – India and China. Home to less than a million, Bhutan is globally recognized for its unique development philosophy that seeks to pursue wellbeing and sustainability over economic growth.
Bhutan remained largely isolated from the outside world till 1960s, missing out all major global events – industrial revolutions, scientific discoveries, world wars, oppressions, liberations and the clash of ideologies. We emerged from our isolation during a time of much discussion and experimentation in the field of development. We watched and listened carefully, comparing it with our own values, mindsets and culture as a nation. The king and the people of Bhutan wished to modernize without losing sight of our traditions and values.
Modernization occurred rapidly since then, impacting the nation both positively and negatively. On one hand, Bhutanese enjoy modern education, healthcare, telecommunications and vast improvements in living standards. On the other, fast-paced modernization and technological progress caused an “identity crisis” of sorts, where the country is struggling to balance modernity with tradition. Much of modern infrastructure and amenities are concentrated in the capital city Thimphu, so the rural parts of Bhutan are still reminiscent of life before the ‘60s where much of the farming is done.
Bhutan’s ecosystems range from about 100 m in the south to over 7500 m towards the north, all within a short range of just 170 km breadth. Due to the variation in topography and climatic zones, a wide variety of crops can be grown in the country. Rice and maize, mandarin, apple, potato, cardamom and ginger are some major cash crops. Recently, small scale dairy and poultry enterprises have become important source of household nutrition and income. However, Bhutan is significantly dependent on food imports (mainly from India). The agriculture sector is the least productive sector in the economy and its contribution to the nation's GDP has been declining steadily over the years.
While buckwheat, maize, millet and barley were grown and consumed traditionally, rice is the preferred staple, often eaten with “ema datshi” the national dish made with chillies and cheese! Bhutanese eat a variety of vegetables, including wild mushrooms, ferns and other edible plants foraged from the forest. Meat is consumed regularly in smaller amounts. Increased availability of (imported) food and higher disposable income has changed dietary habits significantly, contributing to the rise in diseases such as diabetes.
Traditionally, subsistence agriculture was practiced where people were directly connected with the food they grew and ate. Today, farmers cultivate beyond the level of subsistence but not at a significantly large scale. There are 3 distinct ethnic groups and about 25 dialects/languages spoken, the diversity of which is reflected in the food that is grown and eaten in the various communities.
What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Currently, public investment in agriculture and related industries is dismal and has been steadily declining over the last 25 years. Only 6.3% of the national budget (of ~3 billion USD over the period of 2013-18) was allocated to Renewable Natural Resources sector. Competing priorities for development and budget will continue to be a challenge in 2050. Although more than 60% of Bhutanese depend on agriculture for their livelihood, the economics of food production is unfavorable for various reasons, exacerbated by ineffective policies to support smallholder farming and small scale agribusinesses.
Climate change is already affecting the environment, and will be the biggest challenge for the future, impacting crop yield, soil fertility, water availability, etc. Use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides which were once seen as a boon are now impacting soil fertility. Furthermore, due to Bhutan’s steep terrain, only 7.8% of the total area is arable out of which about a third is left fallow due to labor shortage, human-wildlife conflict, insufficient irrigation and limited access to market. Average land holding is less than 2.5 hectare per household. Most Bhutanese refrain from rearing livestock for consumption due to Buddhist beliefs. These environmental and cultural realities set significant limitation to reach the economy of scale to make agriculture a viable industry.
Agriculture policies lack synergy, especially in relation to other policies (health, investment, education), leaving the food production and agro-industries underdeveloped, despite ambitious goals and initiatives. To make matters worse, private investment is concentrated in tourism/hospitality, construction and real estate industries which promise better economic returns. Except for seeds, all agricultural inputs (fertilizer, machinery, equipment, etc.) are imported, increasing the cost of production of food. Use of technology in agriculture is negligent at present, but is likely an inevitable part of human existence in 2050; thus the future challenge would be to harness the power of technology without losing sight of our culture and connection to nature and the environment.
As a result of education and development, most young Bhutanese have moved to the city changing our cultural fabric and way of life that kept us close to the food we grew and ate. The fact that good public services, opportunities, entertainment, etc. are all concentrated in the urban areas does not help retain people in the rural areas, even if it is to work in areas outside of primary production of food.
Finally, the little that Bhutan produces cannot compete with the price and variety of food we import due to economics. Currently our diet consists of food we import about 53% of rice and 97% of edible oil we consume. We spent 65 million USD in meat imports in 2018. Rice, meat, dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables are all imported, as a result of which our food culture and deep connection with the food we eat is eroding. Inorganic, processed and packaged foods are now a part of our diets, impacting our health.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
By leveraging Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) philosophy, we aim to appeal to the conscience of the Bhutanese and transform our culture, and achieve wellbeing and happiness through food. Rather than letting economics dictate our food systems, we will start from wanting better health through better diet and use food system to boost national economy and opportunity for employment. Our long-standing aspiration to become an organic nation fits in well to ensure our food system is healthy, local, regenerative and sustainable.
Through education and awareness on the health benefits of an organic diet, our Vision will start with changing our culture of food consumption, expanding on the currently limited focus by the government to intervene on production. Since economics of importing organic food is unfavorable, the rise of demand for organic food should attract private investment into agriculture and related industries within the country. In doing so, local, organic products will naturally be a more economically-viable option, which is a critical factor in ensuring affordability.
In order to achieve wellbeing through food, policies and public spending will be synergized in favor of encouraging healthy, organic diets AND addressing the multitude of cultural and environmental challenges related to economics of production. Relevant ministries and institutions will work together to issue clear health guidelines, use public procurement to scale up demand for organic food and develop fiscal instruments to encourage supply of local and organic food. Government will also increase investments in R&D for organic, climate-resilient agriculture. Most importantly, it will invest in rural development and farmer wellbeing to reverse the culture of rural-urban migration.
Pursuing the 100% organic goal will certainly benefit the environment as it fits perfectly with the agroecological approaches for sustainable agriculture, which is a well-known strategy for increasing climate resilience. Agroecological strategies that reduce vulnerabilities to climate variability would include crop diversification, maintaining local genetic diversity, animal integration, soil organic management, water conservation and integrating agroforestry systems. Organic products may also open avenues for export, boosting national economy. Additionally we might be able to leverage our status as a carbon sink to gain carbon credits to fund our sustainable development.
The role of technology will be vital in improving production, storage, processing and logistics, especially in addressing environmental challenges due to climate change. It will also be a powerful tool in empowering consumers with information about the food they buy and eat, perhaps providing instant diet and health information through a QR code. Ultimately, technology will enhance the level of agency in farmers as well as the population, enabling better governance overall to achieve wellbeing through food system.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
In 2050, Bhutan is a world leader for organic food and organic thought. Bhutanese focus on development of the inner dimensions of human experience rather than the outer dimensions. The endless spiral of mindless consumption has been broken because we have refused to degenerate into the state represented in Buddhist thought as yida, or hungry ghosts with giant, insatiable stomachs and tiny mouths.
Bhutanese people have achieved a major shift in values and adopted an eco-centric mindset. GNH philosophy has solidified into effective governance, changing the culture and level of agency of all Bhutanese. The animistic spirit of our ancestors which accorded spirituality to every aspect of the environment have been invoked and used as a guiding principle for the sustainable adoption of technology and the built environment, so that technology is used to improve, not distance us from our relationship with nature. Our economy is circular and we have learned to do more with less, changing our very definition of prosperity.
Our diets consist of local, organic, nutritious food. In fact, the idea of food grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides is shocking to us. Technological and agroecological innovations like preemptive shifting of cultivation locations and fast response shelter systems to protect crops in case of extreme weather have enabled us to grow all we need to feed the nation despite the ill effects of climate change.
Bhutan’s food system in 2050 has been so successful that exobotanists designing terraforming systems for sustaining life on other planets like Mars have been studying it for inspiration on how to achieve maximum results with limited resources.
However, 2050 isn't without challenges: investment requirements in technology have sky-rocketed, placing an immense financing burden to the country. Businesses are starting to focus on exporting Bhutanese organic products, threatening our own food security. Competing priorities for land use is a major issue.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Imagine a place where people truly belong to the land - where rivers, lakes, trees, plants, down to the last insect, is sacred. The phrase ‘human development’ is not understood to mean ‘piling concrete upon concrete’ anymore. We are no longer locked in a spiraling race of self-destructive consumption. We believe we are a part of the ecosystem, not on top of it. We care about the food we grow and eat. We care about our physical and mental health. A place where the economy serves people, not the other way around. A place where sustainable and regenerative natural systems inspire lifestyles and the very definition of prosperity. That is our Vision for Bhutan in 2050.
It may sound incredibly utopian, but Bhutan even in 2020 is not very far removed from this Vision. It is what we had 50 years ago, and memories of that lifestyle still course through our culture and governance. Our parents and grandparents tell stories of rearing livestock, milling grains, and mostly living off the land. This isn’t, however, a call for regression to a time spent in hardship, isolation, and literal darkness, with little access to healthcare and other essentials. This is an assertion that in our headlong flight into a technologically-enabled future we must not abandon centuries of accumulated wisdom.
Here are few examples of lives of individuals in 2050:
All Bhutanese are growers, at whatever scale suits them. Dorji, a 15-year old student in Thimphu, uses an app that guides him to nurture his own tomato plant in his backyard so his mother can make him his favorite ezay- the fiery Bhutanese salsa he loves so much. He takes the ezay to school where he shares it with his friends, all of whom have brought something from their kitchen gardens.
Yeshey, a joyful farmer in the south-central district of Zhemgang, has installed soil monitors and latest irrigation technology on her 2-acre farm holding. Her mobile device gives her readouts of temperature, moisture, soil conditions and any pests detected in her rows of mixed crops- maize, buckwheat, millets, chili peppers. She also gets alerts about the weather, any disruptions in the water supply and news of wild animals foraging in the area. Now she receives a message informing her that the small unmanned aircraft doing the rounds collecting harvest from the area is on schedule and should arrive soon. Sipping on a hot cup of suja- salted butter tea, she mentally prepares herself for the meeting this afternoon at her district cooperative to discuss the myriad issues that inevitably arise between 200 smallholder farmers like herself working together. What a nightmare it has been to reach an agreement on the quantity and mix of crops for the next season! Some farmers would rather plant more cardamom for export than growing potatoes for the local market, and she firmly disagrees.
Dawa is a young agri-technology developer at Mongar, further east. He was educated in Bhutan’s premier agriculture school established 25 years ago. He has grown up on organic food and fresh vegetables from his backyard all his life. His mother once told him about the time 40 years ago when alarming levels of pesticides were detected in the produce being imported from India, resulting in their ban. Not having enough local produce, the local markets worked themselves into a frenzy. It’s such a distant reality now, but that possibility haunts him. He tosses the core of his organic apple into the automatic composter bin and gets back to work, developing his handheld scanner that can be pointed at any produce to detect harmful chemicals.
Meanwhile, Choden, the Minister of Agriculture and Forests enjoys a quiet celebratory bowl of ara, the local rice wine. Her Bill calling for tighter border quarantine measures has been passed by the Parliament. This will help reduce invasive species from across the border infiltrating local varietals. She realizes that this is but a small victory, and there are many more issues to be tackled. Climate change is accelerating worldwide, and Bhutan needs to respond to the plight of growers who continue to face uncertainties because of it. Further investments in developing predictive algorithms are perhaps necessary. She has been in discussions with the Minister of Technology about possibilities of funding developers through international partnerships. There are problems innate in the food system she is grappling with- for example, integrated forest and farm land means that predator encounters are higher than ever before. Today, she has to meet with the Trade Minister to discuss some bilateral trade sensitivities due to Bhutan’s strict organic regulations, impacting international relations. She also needs to prepare for a meeting next week with the National Environment Commission and Bhutan’s Ambassador to the European Union to discuss carbon credits, an important source of funds for the country.
Dema moved back to Bhutan recently after living abroad for 30 years. She misses the variety of food available elsewhere in the world since Bhutan’s organic philosophy has significantly reduced people’s interest in imported food. She thinks there’s too much focus on organic food systems at the cost of other industries and sectors. Her father had owned one of the largest grocery retail shops for imported goods and struggled to stay afloat when the “organic revolution” began. Her aunt was also severely affected when the government announced a complete ban on chemical fertilizers, the only business she had known for years. With the rising population, the feeding capacity of our arable land is going to hit the ceiling very soon. Then it’s either imposing population caps or finding more food sources. Lab-grown food has been gaining traction worldwide, and she’s here to explore its possibilities in Bhutan.
At 70, Srijana still enjoys the physical work of feeding her cows. She thinks back to the time when she started her oil milling company with very little money. Thanks to the low-interest loan and innovative financing models, she was able to sustain through the difficult times to become the No.1 fully organic oil brand in Bhutan. However, some of her suppliers have been smuggling non-organic oil seeds to sell her greater quantities, a problem she hopes someone like Dawa can solve.
Krishna moved to Thimphu from his sleepy village in the south about 20 years ago to open his café, but is now considering moving back. He left his farm to pursue the city life, but his family who remained has seen their village grow into a pleasant, comfortable place with plenty of access to health care, education and excellent entertainment and public transport. The coming of age of 3D printing technology really got things moving there. Farming tools and implements, and so many other essential items can be affordably custom-made. He is also incredibly proud that his café was one of the pioneers to serve strictly local and organic food in Thimphu, innovating and creating new dishes from age-old ingredients. He loves the crumble of cottage cheese under his fingers; that aroma rising to his nose right now could be from a hundred, two hundred years ago. In a brief moment of introspection he realizes that, in this instant, he embodies exactly the ideal of his people - the old, braced by the new. And the new, tempered by the ancient. He shakes the thought off with a smile as he waves at Karma, who owns an organic fertilizer company who has just arrived to collect food waste from his café.
Much of the world’s imagination of the future seems to be informed by narratives involving machines, artificial intelligence, and space travel. It is rare to see a work of science fiction that makes any reference to how people would cook, eat, and interact with food. To omit food is to ignore a visceral and inextricable part of being human. Surviving on food pills, artificial meat, or stardust makes for a dreary and unappetizing future. While technology will develop as it may, what we present is an alternative vision which we believe is far more attainable and far more palatable. It is also a lot more economical than investing in food-growing labs, machines, and scientists because nature has already worked out how to grow food for our survival.
Our Vision for 2050 starts with a vision of going 100% organic, not only in the literal sense of the food we grow and eat, but also figuratively in the way we think of ourselves and our place on the planet and its ecosystem. We aspire to be an oasis of calm even as the world rages with the storms of unchecked consumerism. When our economy and our policies are guided by such a vision, investments in regenerative and natural industries will increase. These investments will be primarily focused on meeting the basic needs for human survival: food, shelter, and clothing.
Realistically, our Vision cannot function in isolation. Global developments in food, technology, industry, politics, and economics will certainly affect Bhutan. The fundamental shift in mindset we seek through our eco-centric vision may face strong and multiple opposition, both from outside and from within. Global population growth and control is an uncharted territory altogether which will require difficult ethical questions to be discussed and answered as it directly impacts the carrying capacity of the earth. Thus, in the world of competing priorities, varying values and complex geo-politics, Bhutan’s food system is inextricably linked with everything that happens outside of the narrow valleys we live in. Nonetheless, the opportunities for collaboration with the global community exist. Bhutan’s bold Vision, combined with the brilliant minds and international experts who have decades of experience in turning vision into reality, has in the potential transform the world.
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