"This is the best apricot I've ever eaten." The realization hit me after I'd muzzled down my third in a row. I had to express it in words. I just couldn't get enough of this delicious fruit. The taste was complicated. It was tart but not too tart. Sweet, but not too sweet. It exuded an acidic flavour that zapped the taste buds with a taste that took time to appreciate and will take a much longer time to forget.
"All the fruits in Bhutan are organic,” my guide Tsering responded to my delight. A bit of an exaggeration, but not far off since most of the food grown in the small Himalayan kingdom is organic.
Bhutan made headlines last year when the world media reported that the country would go fully organic by 2020. Their agriculture minister Pema Gyamtsho has since denied making such a bold statement; while at the 13th Delhi Sustainable Development Conference he was reported in The Bhutanese as saying: “It is our goal but it’s not about becoming an organic nation overnight or by 2020 or by 2030."
Regardless of the politics, the country is in a good position to meet their objective. About 70% of its food production is already organic. The majority of farmers in Bhutan go organic because chemicals are too expensive for them and with its mountainous geography, chemical runoff from farms is more likely to pollute the water supply than in other countries - the net effect being that most farmers in Bhutan end up going organic whether by choice or not.
Gyatsho wants to give organic a push by banning the sale of pesticides and herbicides. What may seem like a drastic decision that would take a long time to implement can be done more quickly in a country like Bhutan. As a constitutional monarchy with a history of being ruled wholly by the king up until just 2008, Bhutan can undertake big changes more easily than a large bureaucratic democracy that has to debate every little point before acting (e.g. they have a country-wide mandatory car-free day and other such environmental initiatives).
With a hungry giant like India right next door, Bhutan has a large market to serve - a market that has been opened up through a preferential free trade agreement. And with the fall of the Indian rupee in 2013, Bhutan’s export of vegetables to India doubled. Keunselonline (www.kuenselonline.com) states, “Records with the agriculture department show that Bhutan exported 706.86MT of vegetables worth Nu 13.04M [$215,412, £134,335] until August last year. This year until August, it had doubled its production and exports to 1,536MT worth Nu 24.25M [$400,859, £243,107]."
Despite being a landlocked country, Bhutan also does a good job exporting to its other south Asian neighbours; some of its main food exports are apples, potatoes, oranges and wheat flour.
But despite a population of only 740,000, Bhutan has now become a net importer of food, a shift that could pose a challenge to going fully organic because much of the imported food is chemically grown, which could spur local farmers to use chemicals in order to compete. Bhutan relies a lot on India to import rice, a major food source for them. According to the FAO, 40% of Bhutan’s total rice consumption comes from India and wheat, pulses and vegetable oil are other main sources of food imports. Keunselonline says, “Bhutan is today self sufficient only in eggs. As of last year, agriculture records show that the country is self-sufficient 64% in food grains; 61% in vegetables; 50% in rice; 72% in milk; 76% in cheese, and 78% in butter.”
A definite shift in mindset is happening among the country’s youth. Despite the King’s efforts at restricting the Western influence, such as banning TV until 1999 and only opening their doors to tourism in 1974, many Bhutanese youth are moving to cities in search of urban jobs. Aside from the usual motives for seeking urban jobs, such as higher pay and easier work, one main reason youth are moving away from agricultural work is because it’s dangerous - the local newspaper Kuensel reported that due to a lack of palatable grass, herders need to climb tall trees to lop branches off for fodder; a number of people fall to their death every year.
Bhutan is in a unique position however. Since agriculture is the third largest contributor to their economy after hydroelectricity and tourism, given their small population it would be hard to compete on scale with other countries, let alone their Asian superpower neighbours, but it could easily compete on quality - an approach that would mirror their tourism industry.
Their Tourism Council employs a high value, low impact strategy by requiring tourists to spend a minimum of $250 a day during the high season ($200 a day during low season) - a significant sum for travelling south Asia. The result is that they get relatively few tourists who pay more in turn for a better quality experience that comes from the lack of tourists and the well-preserved environment and culture.
As world organic demand increases, Bhutan’s ability to sell their food abroad could increase since the name 'Bhutan' would become synonymous with organic just as their tourism industry has carved out a niche for the country as a unique travel destination.
As well, since Bhutan is a destination known for catering to eco travellers, the move towards organic also benefits the tourism industry since many of these tourists prefer organic products. Despite the small numbers of tourists, the tourism industry plays a major role in the Bhutan economy and opens up a lot of opportunities for farmers selling their goods to restaurants.
So will Bhutan go fully organic? Since the country has chosen a path of careful progress they’ve been able to see the problems that progress in other countries, and learn from them. I could see them keeping the value of their food supply intact the same way they’ve kept their traditions and culture alive. And if the taste of their apricots told me anything, it was that the quality of organic really does make a difference. A difference that I feel the Bhutanese can appreciate and want to keep alive.
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