This Tiny Country Is Going 100 Percent Organic
By Natasha Geiling / thinkprogress.org
Oct 20, 2015

In 2011, the tiny mountain nation of Bhutan announced a lofty goal: make the country’s agricultural system 100 percent organic by the year 2020. If it succeeded, it would be the first country in the world to achieve the feat.

Bhutan — nestled in the Himalayas between India and China — only has about 700,000 people living within its borders, and most are farmers. It’s a majority Buddhist kingdom, and its culture reflects several key tenets of that religion — sustainable development, conservation of the environment, preservation of the culture, and good governance.

“For a country like Bhutan, there are some things that are a lot easier, because they are a smaller country,” Kristine Nichols, chief scientist at the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit that supports research into organic farming, told ThinkProgress. “When you’re looking at a country like the U.S., if we were to go 100 percent organic, more than likely it isn’t going to be an instantaneous process. It’s going to be a transition process.”

Sowing the seeds of organic agriculture in Bhutan

Bhutan is currently still in the middle of that transition process, though the small country had a few things already working in its favor even before 2011. Bhutan is the only country in the world that rejects gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of progress. Since 1971, the country has instead relied on a measurement known as gross domestic happiness — a benchmark that seeks to quantify the happiness and health of the entire country.

“When we say happiness, it’s not just happiness of humans. It’s happiness of the soil, happiness of the animals, happiness of all sentient beings,” Appachanda Thimmaiah, Bhutan’s agricultural adviser from 2008 to 2013 and associate professor of sustainable living at Maharishi University of Management in Iowa, told ThinkProgress. “Organic farming was very much part of the gross national happiness. You cannot think about applying chemical fertilizers and pesticides and say that your country is happy.”

That’s a cultural philosophy, Thimmaiah said, that he doesn’t see present in the United States.

“Here, we use the word ‘dirt’ for the ‘soil,’ from a very young age,” he said. “That gets ingrained in the mind, and as the child grows up, the child thinks soil is dirty, so what’s the problem in applying pesticide?”

Beginning in 2008, Thimmaiah worked with the Bhutanese government to help the country begin its transition to 100 percent organic agriculture, a partnership that culminated in the development of a National Organic Policy. A crucial part of implementing Bhutan’s NOP, Thimmaiah said, was expanding the educational resources for farmers — beginning with something as simple as redefining the idea of “organic agriculture.”

“I used a term called low-cost agriculture; I didn’t use the word organic agriculture,” Thimmaiah said. “I told them that our main purpose should be to reduce the cost of production.”

For Bhutan, with its mountainous topography, Thimmaiah was confident that organic agriculture, when done correctly, would be more cost-effective than the transportation costs associated with shipping chemical fertilizer throughout the country. Thimmaiah also worked to help farmers understand organic agriculture as being complementary to the local resources — and even waste products — of Bhutan.

“I think this was really key — demonstration of simple, low cost techniques that utilized the local, available resources,” he said. “If it’s about buying inputs, organic farming cannot be successful. The most important thing in organic farming is to see that all the inputs that are required are produced in the farm itself by the farmers by utilizing the locally available resources.”

Thimmaiah says that Bhutan possesses both the political will and farmer interest to succeed in its goal of transitioning to 100 percent organic agriculture by 2020, but notes that there are some existing hurdles, as the country’s population continues to shift from rural to increasingly urban. And even if the country manages to transition, it still will likely rely heavily on imported food — right now, less than 4 percent of Bhutan’s land is under cultivation, though its agricultural productivity has increased 3 percent since beginning its organic push, according to Reuters.

To Thimmaiah, it’s crucial that the government be involved in the transition and support farmers as they make the move from conventional to organic.

“It’s a responsibility of the country to help them, to regard the good work by the farmers,” he said, adding that “other countries can also emulate these things.”

What would it mean for the United States to go 100 percent organic?

If the United States wanted to transition to 100 percent organic agriculture, Nichols explained, the first steps wouldn’t be much different from the path taken in Bhutan.

“From a government standpoint as well as a private industry standpoint, there needs to be support for these transitioning farmers,” Nichols said. “Without support, it can be difficult for many farmers to survive that transition process.”

In general, organic agriculture is a system that relies on cover crops and crop rotation to ensure soil health, and stresses the reduction of external and off-farm inputs. Organic farming, as a rule, eschews genetically modified crops, and some kinds of organic farming rely more on crop diversity to combat weeds and pests than pesticides and herbicides. But there are different levels to organic agriculture — not all organic practices completely reject pesticides, for instance. Some organic farms do use pesticides, they just use ones that are derived from natural, not synthetic, sources (and sometimes, those pesticides can be more harmful than chemical ones). And organic farming doesn’t necessarily mean small-scale farming — there is still industrial organic farming, and at least one study has suggested that large-scale organic farming is more carbon-intensive than conventional farming.

Nichols explained that, at least initially, farmers transitioning from conventional to organic agriculture often see their yields decrease, though she notes that several studies have shown marginal decreases in yields over the long-term. It’s worth noting that those studies, however, tend to compare best organic farming practices — like crop rotation and crop diversity — to a type of conventional agriculture that fails to use those practices. When conventional agriculture employs those conservation practices, the Genetic Literacy Project notes, the gap between conventional yields and organic yields widens.

It’s also important to note, however, that much of the grain — especially corn and soy — grown in the United States via conventional farming isn’t intended for human consumption. The vast majority of U.S. domestic corn is used for ethanol fuel or animal feed, leaving a relatively small sliver of the total production for food.

Nichols also notes a lack of infrastructure support for farmers hoping to transition from conventional to organic agriculture — most grain elevators, for instance, are set up to process non-organic grains, meaning that farmers that grow organic could be forced to transport their product long distances for processing, a cost that could negate the economic premium that organic products tend to collect at market. Another hurdle for farmers — at least as long as organic is still the minority production method — is obtaining an organic certification, which can be prohibitively expensive for some small operations.

John Ikerd, professor emeritus of Agricultural & Applied Economics University of Missouri Columbia, also notes that food prices would potentially increase if the United States were to switch to a 100 percent organic agricultural system — but he argues that the increase would not be insurmountable for the consumer.

“The studies that have been done on this indicate if we shifted to a sustainable system, we’d probably increase retail food prices by eight to twelve percent,” Ikerd said. But, he continued, using the majority of corn produced for either ethanol or livestock feed also raises food prices. “We’ve seen retail food prices go up more than that as a consequence of the corn ethanol program,” Ikerd explained. “When we take 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop and burn it in our cars, that takes all of that land out of producing food for either livestock or people.”

In the long term, Ikerd argues, organic agriculture is less costly than conventional agriculture, because the current price of conventional agriculture doesn’t include any of its detrimental effects on the environment, like dead zones and algal blooms from fertilizer runoff or carbon emissions from soil degradation.

“What makes these industrial operations more economically competitive is that they’re not paying the full environmental and social cost of what they’re doing,” Ikerd said. “When you shift to an agriculture that does not impose any of those costs on the environment or the people that work on that system, you’re going to have increased costs in the short term. In the long term, we’ll find that the organic system is less costly.”

In the end, Ikerd, Nelson, and Thimmaiah all agree that for the United States to switch to 100 percent organic agriculture, it would require a massive overhaul of our priorities, at a federal, industrial, and consumer level.

“The main thing is the mindset,” Ikerd said. “It’s a different way of thinking about what agriculture is. I tell people, being an organic farmer is a lot more like raising kids than making cars.”

4.2 ·
2
Trending Today
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 12,997 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 6,649 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,981 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Obama's Hidden Role in Worsening Climate Change
Stansfield Smith · 1,266 views today · It should be a scandal that leftists-liberals paint Trump as a special threat, a war mongerer – not Obama who is the first president to be at war everyday of his eight years...
"Desert Goddess" Remembers Arizona's Glen Canyon
7 min · 673 views today · In this excerpt from the award-winning documentary DamNation, filmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel interview the "desert goddess," Katie Lee. When the Glen Canyon Dam was...
18 Empowering Illustrations to Remind Everyone Who's Really in Charge of Women's Bodies
Julianne Ross · 427 views today · When Brazilian graphic designer Carol Rossetti began posting colorful illustrations of women and their stories to Facebook, she had no idea how popular they would...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 407 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Make The Serengeti Great Again | Resource Scarcity, Demagogues and How Creativity Can Trump Hate (2017)
5 min · 344 views today · A Familiar Tale of Resource Scarcity, Demagogues, and How Creativity Can Trump Hate A quick, original, illustrated allegory that pokes at the demagogues we’ve got with an...
The Political Elite: Idiots... or Criminals?
Michael Emero · 340 views today · I've been seeing a lot of people convinced that the DNC and all establishment Democrats are total idiots. How could they not be, when they sabotaged an easy win (Bernie) to...
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 338 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
Why It's Crucial for Women to Heal the Mother Wound
Bethany Webster · 250 views today · The issue at the core of women’s empowerment is the mother wound
Defiance in the Face of Oppression - Iranian Artist Atena Farghadani Defends the Right to Draw
Gavin Aung Than · 241 views today · Atena Farghadani is a 28-year-old Iranian artist. She was recently sentenced to 12 years and 9 months in prison for drawing a cartoon.  
Baraka (1992)
97 min · 238 views today · Featuring no conventional narrative, this film presents footage of people, places and things from around the world. From chaotic cities to barren wilderness, the movie takes...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 237 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Deconstructing Hierarchies: On Contrived Leadership and Arbitrary Positions of Power
Colin Jenkins · 231 views today · Bosses don't grow on trees. They don't magically appear at your job. They aren't born into their roles. They are created. They are manufactured to fulfill arbitrary positions...
This Zen Comic Is Full of Timeless Life Lessons
Gavin Aung Than · 224 views today · Desiderata poem by Max Ehrmann beautifully illustrated by Gavin Aung Than
HUMAN (2015)
382 min · 205 views today · What is it that makes us human? Is it that we love, that we fight? That we laugh? Cry? Our curiosity? The quest for discovery?  Driven by these questions, filmmaker and artist...
The Invention of Capitalism: How a Self-Sufficient Peasantry was Whipped Into Industrial Wage Slaves
Yasha Levine · 196 views today · “…everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.” —Arthur Young; 1771 Our popular economic wisdom says that...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 195 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
90 Inspiring and Visionary Films That Will Change How You See the World in Profound Ways
Tim Hjersted · 170 views today · The world today is in crisis. Everybody knows that. But what is driving this crisis? It's a story, a story that is destroying the world. It's a story about our relationship to...
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
This Tiny Country Is Going 100 Percent Organic