Located on the eastern side of the Himalayas, Bhutan is a tiny country with a population of around 750,000 people. It is known for being one of the happiest nations in the world, and the government puts a heavy emphasis on its unique Gross National Happiness metric, which measures progress through the spiritual, physical, social, and environmental health of its citizens.
It is also the first country in the world on track to becoming 100-percent organic.
For the 14,824-square-mile nation, going entirely organic was not that far of a stretch. The majority of food already comes from small farmers, and agriculture in the country never required much in the way of inputs. It wasn’t until the 1980s when synthetic agro-chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides were introduced that things began to change.
In 2011, the country decided to phase out those chemicals. Their goal: to make the entire country’s agricultural system organic by 2020.
The man behind that transition was Dr. Appachanda Thimmaiah. Thimmaiah is currently the associate professor of sustainable living at Maharishi University of Management in Iowa, and from 2008 to 2013 he served as the organic agriculture consultant to Bhutan.
He literally wrote the book on Bhutanese organic certification, so we called him up to talk about his plan for Bhutan and if such a strategy could be applied to the States.
Spoiler alert: The secret is cow piss.
MUNCHIES: So, how did you get invited to Bhutan?
Appachanda Thimmaiah: I have a consultancy company in India. We were the first consultancy company in biodynamic agriculture in India and we were the first to develop large agricultural projects transitioning to organic agriculture. The Bhutanese government wanted to see large successful projects in organic agriculture. I invited them to India and showed them some of my projects and after that, they sent a group of 30 officials from the government to get training for a week. A week training program doesn’t give you the entire experience. Then they were looking for somebody to come help them for organic agriculture development and I was chosen by the ministry of agriculture as a consultant. It was funded by a couple of NGOs and eventually my work was for two years.
But still, once you arrived there, you had to convince all of the stakeholders to agree to 100-percent organic. How did you do that?
Initially when I went, it was not really so much appreciated by the scientific community. Organic, as it is understood, is expensive. The assumption is that you have to put in a lot of money. The inputs are higher, it’s labor intensive, you require certification, and it’s all together a difficult process. It’s only for the rich and not for the poor. People think it’s a specialty food.
Then I started using the word “sustainable” and even that didn’t catch on initially. The first six months, I had a tough time convincing the government officials and the scientific community in Bhutan about organic farming.
Then I started using the phrase “low-cost agriculture.” I told the ministry that whatever we do, if we can reduce the cost of production, that should be the way to go about it. That became the password. It clicked. It brought the stakeholders, the ministers, the bureaucrats, and the scientific community together.
That was a big lesson even for me. We cannot add our own narratives or terminologies or concepts and you cannot push them down people’s throats and say, “This is the way you have to go.” You have to take into account the cultural sensitivities. Certain phrases are not right. Even today, “organic” is a phrase in which people harbor their own understandings. People think it’s for the rich and that it’s an expensive food. We have to understand what end users want. That was a big lesson for me.
How did you design the system so that it was low-cost?
Still, organic farming, to a large extent, is a substitution type of farming. Farmers used to buy fertilizers and pesticides and now the same farmer purchases compost and natural inputs. That type of substitution farming doesn’t work at all. To have a successful organic farming project, all of the inputs should be produced on the spot. It should be a system that creates self-sufficiency and is a closed-loop system. The activities that we do should be regenerative in nature and whatever waste we produce, it should be recycled. In a farm, there’s enough biomass that is viable in the form of weeds, residue, and plant parts that do not have economic value. All of these can be converted into a compost and products which are very helpful for growing food.
What’s an example?
I brought in the concept of a cow-centered farming system. In Bhutan, every farmer has a couple of cows that they use to make cheese. Cheese is one of the important commodities for them. It’s one of the national dishes. But farmers don’t know how to use cow urine. They don’t know how to use the cow manure. They take it, dump it behind the cattle shed, allow it to rot, and then they still put it in the feed and compost. It’s a very rudimentary and traditional way. I showed them how urine can be utilized in agriculture. When you spray cow urine on a plant, the plant literally goes crazy because it gets all the viable nutrients. These farmers started doing that and they could see a huge difference. You can use medicinal plants as a bio-pesticide. When these plants are fermented in cow urine, this solution can be used as a bio-pesticide.
That was a major transformation. Earlier, the cows were tied under the tree and urine would go to waste. Now they have a program of constructing cattle sheds. There’s a slight slope where the urine flows out of the cattle shed and collects. Now they use the urine. This was a great, great success.
Cows, however, have been widely criticized as being a high-methane emitter. They also take up a lot of space, no?
We are talking about the small cows, not the high-yielding milking cows which are fed with grains and genetically modified crops and stuff like that.
We are talking about small, miniature cows which are designed by nature to consume the locally available fodder and convert that to a very nutrient-rich manure. You don’t need a large dairy for organic farming. You just need one cow which is sufficient for 25 to 30 acres.
How did you go about teaching everyone about organic farming?
I wrote a book called A Guide to Organic Agriculture in Bhutan. This became a bible for organic agriculture and it’s an open source training manual without intellectual property rights. It’s been printed multiple times; the guidebooks are being distributed free and translated into the local language. The next stage was training the trainers. Every year, I had a program of training the trainers so that even in my absence the whole knowledge remains in Bhutan. Now they are very self-sufficient and they know the art and the science of organic farming.
Let’s talk about the certification process. For organic farmers around the globe, that is one of the biggest headaches of the industry.
They didn’t have organic standards when I started out. Most of the organic standards were copied from the European standards, but that’s specific to the European region. So I tailored something that is very specific to Bhutan. I found that in the certification system, if you have an external inspector from India or from Thailand coming in and certifying, then the cost of the whole process would be very high. It includes flying the person in, paying the certification charges, and the annual renewal of the certification.
My personal view is: Why is the whole world asking organic farmers to certify? It should be the polluters and the farmers who are applying chemical fertilizers and pesticides who should be getting certified. They are the ones who are actually polluting the environment and the whole farming system. This was my argument. I spoke to the agriculture minister about this and I developed a system called
Bhutan Organic Certification System (BOCS). It became the responsibility of the government to inspect and certify the organic farmers free of cost. They should not be penalized for doing good, they should not pay for providing environmental services. They should be rewarded for doing good.
So this system is being implemented now and this is the first system in the world. I call it a zero-cost certification system, where the farmer does not pay anything. It’s not just about producing food devoid of synthetic agrochemicals. It’s about the environmental services that they produce like clean water, clean land, clean food, saving the bees and birds, and contributing to biodiversity.
What’s the farming industry like in Bhutan now?
Seventy to 80 percent of the farms are very small and are on one hectare or less than a hectare of land.
To an extent, 80 percent of the farms are now organic. It’s the ones that reside by the roads that aren’t. These farmers have easier access to chemical fertilizers. For those farmers who are living at the top of the mountain, it’s too expensive to transport a couple of bags of fertilizers to the top of the village. The transportation cost itself would be more than the cost of the fertilizer. Some of the rice farmers use mainly weedicides and herbicides because there is a shortage of labor. Not many people are showing interest in farming. A rice plantation requires a large amount of labor, especially for weeds. That’s why they use weedicides.
Is an all-organic policy possible in a country as large as the United States?
Yes, it is possible, but we need a strong spiritual connection for this. It cannot be a policy that is shoveled deep down the throat. It works well in Bhutan because of their Buddhist policies.
Organic farming is an enlightened way of doing things. It’s a smarter way of doing things. It’s a righteous way of doing things. It’s collectivism. It’s doing farming together. We have deep spiritual connection to the Earth, to our activities, to sentient beings, and deep reverence to those natural forces. It’s very difficult to understand the importance of clean agriculture and organic agriculture. Yes, it is possible to have organic farming in small, little counties to begin with. It’s a knowledge-intensive system. We need to train the farmers in simple techniques which are hands-on and which utilize the local resources.
However, what works in Bhutan cannot be copied exactly in another country because of climatic and geographical difference. But resources are available in every place and every country. Nature is so abundant. She provides resources in abundance.
What about large farms?
Even the big farms can go organic. If you look at the food supply from all over the world, around 70 to 80 percent of the food that is produced is produced by small-scale farmers. Large farmers contribute only to 10 or 15 percent of the food supply. Obviously that number is higher in the States.
But what type of food are we eating? It’s all pesticide-laden food [produced] at a very high cost. The food that we eat may be really cheap, but look at the environmental cost. I think we are not doing a complete environmental audit. If you add up all those costs, it’s more expensive. Both small-level farming and large-scale farming can be organic. It should be the intention. People should be held responsible for cleaning up the environment and regenerating it.
Yield is another problem that organic farmers typically face. Most of them can’t produce enough food to meet demand. How did you deal with this?
With organic farming, it is possible to even surpass traditional farming in terms of results. What is biggest radish that you’ve seen in your life? I once saw a radish, using a local seed from Bhutan, that was about 20 pounds. If you have the right feed and the right conditions to let that seed exhibit all of its potential, all the plants would thrive so well. Cabbage, for example. Ten to 15 pounds. Turnips, around 16 pounds. If you can do it right and do it scientifically, yield is not a problem in organic agriculture.
It seems like we have a lack of regenerative agriculture education in the States.
Yes, and looking at this major limitation, I’m launching a ten-month certificate program at our university in Iowa which addresses the needs of the modern farmers. Most of the youngsters that want to get into organic farming don’t know how to go about it. This ten-month course would have three months of theory classes in the classroom and six month of actual field work. A group of three to four students would be given an acre of land and they have to cultivate it from seed to sale. After that there’s a one-month apprenticeship program. If there are some people who really want to become farmers but don’t have the money to buy land, we have an organic farm incubation program. We will give them an acre of land and they can do organic farming .
What are some of the environmental benefits of organic farming?
Organic agriculture is the best system to combat climate change. Agriculture is a culprit and a solution. It pollutes, but at the same time agriculture is a solution for climate change if you can do it right. Organic agriculture, when it’s done right, is the best way to sequester carbon. We want to bring carbon into the soil and all of our practices are aimed at sequestering carbon and storing carbon underground, not allowing it to go above the ground. Composting and mulching needs to be practiced.
In addition to carbon sequestration, there’s a major problem in groundwater contamination because of pesticides and weedicides. The lakes are getting contaminated. Rainwater washes away all of the chemicals away into the water bodies and the water bodies get polluted. At the same time, bees and pollinators are affected by aerial spraying. The manure that comes out of those animals are being used and have residues of all of these chemicals, and we eat the food that is being produced with that.
Our bodies become a sink for all of these dangerous cancer-causing chemicals. People are suffering from diabetes and heart attacks. The food that we eat is not safe anymore. Food is medicine and medicine is food. Food is no longer clean, food is no longer nutrient-dense. It really would not take that much time for human beings to become extinct at this rate. So it’s not just environmental welfare that’s being impacted. It’s also human and animal welfare.
Speaking of human welfare, how does the Bhutanese emphasis on Gross National Happiness tie into organic farming?
One of the pillars of Gross National Happiness (GNP) is sustainable development and the conservation and preservation of environment. Organic farming fits very well in the pattern of development of this tiny nation that is Bhutan. It is much easier there to adopt these practices.
GNP is a Buddhist philosophy. All activities of the government should be aligned with this model of development and Buddhism. When the farmer is applying fertilizers and pesticides and killing those sentient beings, how can people be happy? Happiness is not just a material thing. It is a process that happens when we connect ourselves with sentient beings and all the life that is around us. The question is: How can we complement the growth and development of the species around us?
You’ve alluded a lot to Buddhism. How is spirituality related to organic agriculture?
It’s very important that we understand ourselves. Everything boils down to consciousness. If our consciousness does not change and if we do not understand at a deeper level that it’s our responsibility to heal this ailing modern earth, I don’t think we can do much. It is not enough to be merely sustainable. We have to evolve toward regenerative agricultural systems. Every action of ours should bring in incremental benefits to the soil and diversity to the soil.
That consciousness is lacking in the moment. If we can enter that consciousness, I think we can heal the world probably within a decade or so.
Wow, a decade?
Yes absolutely. Having cows at the center of farming is very important. Cows have multiple benefits in organic agriculture. If you have cows in a farm and farms know the science of using cow manure and cow urine, it is much easier to use organic farming. In the ancient scriptures of India, it is mentioned that the goddess of prosperity, Lakshmi, resides in cow dung and cow urine. If a farmer knows the art of using cow dung or cow urine, Lakshmi—prosperity—will start flowing. That is the message.
Thank you for speaking with me.