Organic farming is not a threat to food security

Expert says that with 65% of farmers in Bhutan using organic manure, the perception that organic farming would lead to food insufficiency is misleading

While going organic is still a plan implemented by the government, questions on the relation between organic farming and productivity is also debated, with food security becoming the main center of the debate. However, specialist Kesang Tshomo from the organic flagship program says that with about 65% of Bhutanese farmers growing different types of commodities in the filed by using farm manures, which are organic, the situation at the grass-roots is different.

Another civil servant said that as organic agriculture is a viable option for family farms and smallholders, it supports food sovereignty, and therefore food security. Further, most of the budget earmarked for this flagship program went into the production of organic fertilizers.

Suggesting that the “organic – food security” debate requires further study, Kezang said “the most controversial debate happen as people think organic means a threat to food security.”

“But the case is very different,” she said, adding that only 35% of farmers use inorganic fertilizers. And most of this group are commercial farmers.

However, Kesang said that the production of organic commodities will depend on technical infrastructure, decisions on investment, policies of the government and research activities.

“If the government bans inorganic fertilizers then the government should be able to replace it with adequate organic fertilizers or with farm yard manure to ensure that farmers get the same yield as the chemical fertilizer, which, the government cannot do,” she said.

In addition, she underlined that it is not because the government doesn’t want organic farming. “The government wants to move slowly to a greener, sustainable and environmental friendly farm input, amongst others,” she said.

While highlighting that the organic flagship program “is there for the above purpose,” she said people will not be forced to go organic. However, they will be encouraged to use more environmental friendly materials, safer ways of farming and produce products that are safe.

Kezang elaborated that better farming system depends from person to person. “For commercial farmers from Punakha, Dagana, Wangdue Phodrang, Paro, Tsirang and Thimphu, better farming system means better fertilizer, better machinery, higher yield, better pesticides and others. But in other districts, such as the Far East dzongkhags (district), better farming system means less labour, better seed, better markets and better yields.”

Reiterating that that the government cannot make an influence by banning the import of chemical fertilizers, which could lead to more problems, Kezang said that the transition to organic will be a natural process. However, she said that it is important to provide people an enabling environment for people to choose better and safer ways of farming.

Speaking along the lines of Kezang, a civil servant who did not want to be named said that many parts of the world are experiencing a decline in yields despite the increased use of chemical inputs. “In contrast, organic agriculture has proven to be effective in increasing and stabilizing yields, particularly in marginal lands. This means it is a system that empowers farmers to restore and uphold food security,” he said, adding organic agriculture can combat desertification by decreasing erosion and improving water uptake and retention.

“Organic agriculture also helps to increase resistance to pests and diseases, which is crucial to building food security and recent global analysis suggests that organic farming offers a way to reduce the use of synthetic pesticides for the management of animal pests and pathogens without increasing their levels of infestation,” he underlined.

Meanwhile, under the organic flagship program, one of the biggest investment areas was on the production of organic fertilizer. “Since the introduction of the flagship program, we have upgraded the small scale organic fertilizer production to medium scale increasing their producing capacity,” Kezang said. Large scale compost plant like Bhutan organic fertilizer in Pasakha, which has the capacity to produce over 500MT to 1000MT, was supported by the program.

In addition, Greenure was produced in collaboration with Bhutan Board Products Limited (BBPL), where the wood mulch is converted to organic manure called Greenure. The plant has a capacity to produce 1500MT to 2000MT of organic fertiliser.

Kesang said, “We have two big scale producing organic fertilizers and 12 medium scale producing organic fertilizers, which, in the last few months, have been producing almost 2000MT of organic manure.”

She further informed that another organic fertilizer production plant is coming up in Sha Adha, Wangduephodrang, in collaboration with Farm Machinery Corporation Limited (FMCL) and a Korean company as a joint venture which, will be focusing on organic fertilizer, apart from producing bio fertilizer.

“The bio fertilizer target is to produce 450MT to 500MT of bio fertilizer. Bio fertilizer can not only be used in the farm as an organic fertilizer. It can be used to enrich and make organic manures and fertilizers better and enhance efficiency,” Kesang said.

Kesang further stated that with the bio fertilizer, the volume of fertilizer required will be reduced as compared to other fertilizers.

Meanwhile, like all activities of the 12th Five Year Plan (FYP), the organic flagship program would end in June 2023. However, officials involved in the program say it does not mean that everything related to organic farming will be shut. Rather activities and implementation will continue even after June 2023. For the final year of the project, the government has allocated Nu 127mn.

The organic flagship was initially approved with Nu 1bn by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). However, due to the pandemic, the budget was reduced to Nu 650mn after the prioritisation exercise.

“By the end of next year, about Nu 450mn to Nu 500mn will be used as we cannot do some of the activities like farmer’s trainings, trade expos, including participation and promotion,” Kesang said. However, the specialist said that under the flagship program, farmers continue to be trained on various field.

The organic flagship program mainly focuses on three commodities, ginger, turmeric and buckwheat. The flagship was started with focus on 12 commercialized products. But with some changes and priorities directed by the government, the program focused on these three commodities.

The flagship program supports the three products with commercial production, crop management, input supplies, and value chain development, processing and marketing with organic certification, amongst others.

In 2021, the organic commodity production was 2392MT (Metric tonnes) including other organic commodities. The revenue generated was about Nu 19.5mn.

Currently, Kesang said that the highest area for the production of the organic commodities is in Samdrupjongkhar, Tsirang and Sarpang.

In 2002, Bhutan took its first step to embrace organic agriculture by opening a small organic agriculture (OA) unit under the Department of Agriculture. After a decade, during the Rio+20 Summit in 2012, Bhutan made an ambitious declaration to the international community to become a fully OAcountry by 2020.

According to the United Nations  Food and Agriculture Organisation (FOA), OA is less harmful compared to most other forms of farming, and offers multiple benefits that address Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Cognizant of its myriad positive roles, OA is increasingly being adopted across the world and for the first time in 2019, the global share of agricultural land under OA reached 1.5%.

There is increasing awareness that OA makes important contributions to safer food and fiber production with minimal adverse impacts on society, economy and environment. Thus, OA is seen as an important tool for addressing multiple SDGs. The FOA has said that whilst healthy and sustainable food has direct and indirect link to all the 17 SDGs, OA has more relevance and direct contribution to at least eight goals, including Zero Hunger, Good Health and Well-being, Clean Water and Decent Work Conditions.

Sherab Dorji from Thimphu