Can National Happiness Survive on an Organic Diet?


Stepped farming in Paro, Bhutan (Credit: Soham Banerjee)

The small kingdom of Bhutan is known for establishing the “gross national happiness” tool, a “multidimensional measurement” that looks at its citizens’ quality of life and well-being. Lately, it has been making waves for its government’s ambition to become the first 100% organic country in the world. Its only competition? The Pacific Island of Niue, according to Agence France Presse (AFP).

Interestingly, the debate about the merits of organic agriculture have resurfaced at the same time. Last month, a recent analysis of older research declared (with much hoopla) that organic products do not have more vitamins and minerals than conventionally produced food. As New York Time columnist Mark Bittman rebutted, the analysis also confirmed that organic food reduces consumer exposure to pesticides and antibiotic resistant bacteria—which is one of the reasons why people prefer organics in the first place.

The question of consumer preference is all well and good when debating how to produce food for industrialized countries like the United States.  Many Americans have the luxury to walk into a grocery store and determine whether the family budget allows for the premium price one has to pay for organic food. But certified organic food makes up only 1% of the world’s calories, according to NPR.

In developed countries, a primary question is how to eat a balanced diet. In less developed countries, the question is more whether people have enough to eat. Out of the seven billion people in the world, more than a billion eat too much and less than a billion eat too little. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who lives where.

Furthermore, while organic consumers do not need more nutritious food, those in developing countries do.  Hunger in developing countries is more than a question of getting enough calories; there is a defined need for the full complement of vitamins and minerals.

One question, then, is whether Bhutan’s population can feed itself on organic agriculture. This is a constant point of contention between organic advocates and those working on feeding the impoverished and “food insecure” parts of the world.

It is not an easy question for Bhutan to tackle.  Efforts at self-sufficiency are plagued by difficult terrain, the changing climate, and water shortages. The country imports just over half of its rice from India and China; there have been no reports on whether these and other food imports will eventually be mandated organic as well.

Bhutan has a modest population of 700,000 and is considered a “least developed country.” While the government has made great strides in reducing poverty (from 36.3% in 2000 to 23.2% in 2007), almost all of this poverty is located in the rural areas, where food is grown.  These areas are not well connected to Bhutan’s cities and the entire country, located in the eastern Himalayas, is not easily accessible as well.

The country’s geographic remoteness is an advantage in converting to organic agriculture.  Most of the country is organic by default, as they either cannot afford conventional production techniques and the materials needed—pesticides, fertilizer, etc.—are hard to come by. “Only farmers in areas that are accessible by roads or have easy transport have access to chemicals,”Bhutan’s Minister for Agriculture Pema Gyamtsho told AFP.

With less than a million people to feed, Bhutan is an interesting laboratory for whether a nation can become organic.  In many ways, it is yet another marketing effort that seeks to tap the prestige of organics.  The country exports potatoes, oranges, apples, red rice, exotic mushrooms, and lemon grass oil, according to the World Food Programme. These items can increase in value if organic, and may increase further if Bhutan’s all-organic status helps the nation become a premium food brand.

But it is important to avoid applying Bhutan’s experience to how food is grown in the United States and other industrialized countries. Advocates in the developed world are better off looking at California’s efforts at sustainable and organic agriculture, perhaps, and how ballot propositions have been the driver of the baby steps taken by the state’s agriculture in this direction.  Agriculture states like California (or Florida, or elsewhere) far surpass Bhutan in size, scope, food production and complications.

In short, while Bhutan’s efforts are noteworthy, there is a good chance that applicable lessons from its organic experience will be as remote as the kingdom itself.  Interestingly enough though, thanks to the country’s happiness measurements, the one thing we can determine is whether becoming 100% organic makes a population happier.


Human Journey

Meet the Author
Dan Klotz is a veteran writer and advocate on conservation efforts and the health and sustainability of our food systems. Dan's career has spanned a wide range of policy issues, including protecting sharks around the world, securing the land rights of indigenous communities, addressing the sustainability and research needs of agriculture both domestically and internationally, advocating for smoke-free workplaces, cleaning up toxic waste sites, and preserving wild areas on land and in the ocean.