An Urban's Rural View

How a Grossly Happy Nation Feeds Itself

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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If the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is famous for anything, it's for inventing the notion of Gross National Happiness, an alternative to Gross National Product that gives weight to non-economic values. In Bhutan's case these include preserving its agrarian, Buddhist culture and protecting its nearly pristine environment.

In recent years, the concept has captured the imagination of international opinion makers and put economists to work building happiness indices. Yet, in its purest form, Gross National Happiness remains one tiny Asian country's attempt to modernize without losing its soul.

A 15-day tour of Bhutan like the one I just took provides glimpses of this tension between old and new -- increasing urbanization, massive road-widening, cellphone towers competing with prayer flags for pride of place at mountain passes. Tradition still has the upper hand, but clearly it faces challenges.

A separate but related tension centers on the future direction of Bhutanese agriculture. One of the government's goals is for Bhutan to become, by 2020, the world's first 100% organic-agriculture country. Another is to improve food security and stop being a net importer of food. Can Bhutan do both?

Even though farmers account for more than half of Bhutan's 750,000 people, it's amazing the country grows as much food as it does. Mountains are everywhere; some of the "foothills" rise to 12,000 feet. Flat land barely exists. A valley even a mile wide and a few miles long is a rarity and many of the valleys have rivers running through them. (Selling hydroelectric power to India is one of Bhutan's main sources of export earnings.)

Rice is the principal crop. It's grown even at 8,600 feet thanks to the introduction a few years ago of a seed bred for high altitudes. Our tour group saw paddies terraced so steep we wondered how farmers got to them. We saw farmers harvesting by hand, with scythes.

Chilies are also widely grown. "We eat rice and chilies for breakfast, rice and chilies for lunch and rice and chilies for dinner," our Bhutanese guide said. But the Bhutanese also eat, and grow, a wide variety of other fruits and vegetables -- lemongrass, apples, turnips and cabbage, among many others.

If altitude hurts Bhutanese farmers, latitude helps them; the climate is surprisingly mild. Thimphu, the capital city, is on about the same parallel as Orlando, Florida. In some parts of the country we saw trees bearing oranges and bananas.

A big agricultural handicap is the lack of storage and processing facilities. That, our guide suggested, is one of the reasons for the country's agricultural-trade deficit. "We grow potatoes and export them to India because we can't store all we grow; India sends us back potato chips."

The government is pushing programs to boost food security. Whether the country can succeed at that and go 100% organic at the same time remains to be seen. True, many Bhutanese farmers are essentially organic anyway because they can't afford chemicals. It's also true that some of the additional food will come from new crops the government's encouraging, like hazelnuts. Still, the challenge will be how to improve yields of rice, potatoes and other major crops.

Correction: In a previous post (…) I wrote that Bhutan has only one traffic light. That was true at one time but the country now has none -- not a single traffic light. According to our guide, "uneducated" drivers didn't understand what red, yellow and green signified, so the intersection that used to have the traffic light now has a policeman to direct traffic.

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Urban Lehner
12/4/2015 | 5:02 PM CST
Did you try the Red Panda beer in those Star Wars bars or stick with the Druk 11000? We drove into the southeast corner of the country from India and headed north and west until we got to Paro, where we flew out. It was great seeing Mt. Everest from the plane right after takeoff.
11/29/2015 | 8:09 PM CST
I was there in 2007. Beautiful country and people. Loved the approach into Paro. The hotel bars had a Star Wars feel to them.
Urban Lehner
11/26/2015 | 11:46 AM CST
Thanks, Gary, you obviously know the place well. I did eat the chilis and I made the long walk up to Tigers' Nest. We were doing a lot of nature watching--birds, mammals, the whole bit--but I did see many a Dzong and listen to many a howling dog. When were you there?
11/26/2015 | 9:37 AM CST
15 days in Bhutan? I can't imagine. Dzong after Dzong. You must have been on every road in the country, twice. Did you make it up to the Eagles Nest? Hopefully you ate those chillies? Wowza!! and the dogs at night--under the single pane windows!!