Bhutan’s new or­ganic food move­ment

Meet the Bhutanese en­tre­pre­neur work­ing on or­ganic food pro­duc­tion, her­itage and ed­u­ca­tion.

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - Hannes Loren­zen

K esang Choe­don has cre­ated an in­no­va­tive or­ganic and her­itage food en­ter­prise near Thim­phu, the Bhutanese cap­i­tal. For­merly a po­lice of­fi­cer, Choe­don em­ploys and trains 30 young women in pro­cess­ing and mar­ket­ing of Bhutan's lo­cal food trea­sures.

The en­ter­prise in­cludes the pro­cess­ing of nearly 150 dif­fer­ent or­ganic food in­gre­di­ents from a wide range of lo­cal prod­ucts in­clud­ing dried fruit and veg­eta­bles, ce­re­als, pulses, health drinks, herb teas and spices. These prod­ucts are sold in an or­ganic shop, and of­fered in a Folk Her­itage Restau­rant in the cap­i­tal.

Choe­don is ea­ger to fur­ther ex­pand her fa­cil­i­ties, prod­ucts and train­ing to young Bhutanese peo­ple. Her in­ten­tion is to cre­ate and strengthen a new or­ganic food move­ment that builds upon food tra­di­tions but also brings healthy and tasty food to Bhutanese peo­ple

Some peo­ple in Bhutan con­sider you as pioneer of a new food move­ment. Would you agree?

I am not sure whether I am a pioneer in the lit­eral sense. The na­ture of my work led to work­ing di­rectly with farm­ers and the need to be sup­ply our peo­ple with nat­u­rally grown good food.

If Bhutan is to be turn­ing to­ward 100 per­cent or­ganic, then farm­ers, pro­ces­sors and con­sumers need to work to­gether. Some may be­lieve that our food is al­ready or­ganic, be­cause most of our farm­ers do not use any chem­i­cals or fer­til­iz­ers. But in fact there is only a very small or­ganic mar­ket and there is a risk that non-or­ganic meth­ods come sneak­ing in.

I con­sider my food busi­ness as an invitation to farm­ers to cre­ate their own or­ganic mar­ket and as an invitation to con­sumers to value what we have in Bhutan: very nu­tri­tious and tasty lo­cal food.

You started your food busi­ness ten years ago to pre­serve and de­velop Bhutanese food cul­ture.

Was it dif­fi­cult to find farm­ers who would work with you?

Not at all. The prob­lem was getting started and getting the quan­ti­ties right. Some­times I would have far too much, some­times far too lit­tle.

So I de­cided to dry food so that I would be able to bal­ance what I re­ceived and what I could store - fruit, veg­eta­bles, pulses, ce­re­als. That gave me time to find out­lets. The shop helped and of course the restau­rant.

There was no or­ganic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and con­trol at that time. How could you trust that you got the qual­ity you wanted?

I was re­ly­ing on my own sense and the sense of friends who helped me to find farm­ers who were ready to co­op­er­ate.

Bhutan is a big fam­ily you know. And in the vil­lages we keep an eye on each other. With the help of the gov­ern­ment's ex­ten­sion ser­vice we had quickly built up a group or­ga­niz­ing and check­ing the buy­ing up.

We have the Bhutanese or­ganic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion now but I would like to say that cer­ti­fi­ca­tion may not be nec­es­sary for the lo­cal mar­ket (but would be nec­es­sary for ex­ports).

You were a po­lice of­fi­cer be­fore you started your food busi­ness. Why did you leave your ca­reer in the civil ser­vice and go it alone?

I was very lucky to be one of the first women of­fered a ca­reer when the gov­ern­ment de­cided to em­ploy women in se­cu­rity ser­vices.

It was an ex­cit­ing time. I love in­ves­ti­ga­tions. At that time, it was still an ad­ven­ture to be of­fi­cer in the coun­try­side: no roads, no cars, walk­ing in the moun­tains, cross­ing rivers at night, sleep­ing in cow­sheds on farms in the for­est and so on.

And it was al­ready dur­ing that time that my sense for food had emerged from the food that we were of­fered at the farms. Then there was my grand­mother's food that was ir­re­sistibly good. Both, my grand­moth­ers' and our farm­ers' food were the rea­sons that I dropped the job.

It was not an easy de­ci­sion at all. I think it was the day when I had read some re­views about the bad im­age Bhutanese food has. I was sud­denly sure that my pas­sion for our own Bhutanese food was stronger than re­main­ing in the po­lice ser­vices.

I had no bad con­science that I would not prop­erly serve my coun­try any more – you know we feel very re­spon­si­ble in Bhutan to serve our coun­try - I was just sure my ser­vice for our coun­try would be to pre­serve our food.

You are pas­sion­ate about drawing young peo­ple into a new food move­ment - you em­ploy and train thirty young women. Is food still best taken care of by women?

I have only em­ployed young women. Girls are in gen­eral more am­bi­tious and in­no­va­tive then men.

Women of­ten do not find jobs when it comes to plumb­ing, fix­ing elec­tri­cal lines and ce­ment works, as they are risky and re­quire phys­i­cal strength. I fo­cus on young women who are job­less for some rea­son, in­clud­ing school drop-outs. And I want them to un­der­stand how im­por­tant and fas­ci­nat­ing work­ing with food is.

The girls in my staff stay with me be­tween three to ten years. They like the team­work and I en­cour­age them to take their own projects and ini­tia­tives in hand and de­velop them fur­ther.

I al­ways said to my­self: if you feel like do­ing it, go for it, be your own master. My daugh­ter and two nieces are man­ag­ing the shop and the restau­rant by the way. I be­lieve women will do the job of bring­ing our lo­cal food and or­ganic farm­ing right into the cen­ter of Bhutanese cul­ture.

You are build­ing your busi­ness and your am­bi­tion for an or­ganic food move­ment on food her­itage and on food ed­u­ca­tion. Do you also be­lieve that a change of Bhutan’s farm and food pol­icy could help to achieve the de­clared goal to be­come the first coun­try in the world with 100 per­cent or­ganic farm­ing?

Poli­cies can help, if the peo­ple carry them. We have the ad­van­tage that our King and our Gov­ern­ment want to go that way. But peo­ple seem to be­lieve that we are al­ready there, and that is not the case.

Our sub­sis­tence farm­ers farm with­out chem­i­cals but not nec­es­sar­ily or­ganic. There are prac­tices miss­ing like crop ro­ta­tion and good wa­ter man­age­ment that make farm­ing re­silient on the long run.

But also con­sumers are not aware of how im­por­tant it is that they choose lo­cal and sea­sonal food from Bhutan to sup­port farm­ers in their ef­fort to go or­ganic.

Fi­nally it is an ed­u­ca­tional job. We have to teach food cul­ture at schools and talk more about it. I was very lucky be­cause I could tap into my grand­mother's vast cook­ing, preser­va­tion and food knowl­edge. She lived to 110 years old, so I had time to “ab­sorb” her trea­sure of recipes and I could build upon that to de­velop my en­ter­prise.

I am very keen to hand that on to my daugh­ters and to the young peo­ple work­ing with me. I be­lieve our food cul­ture is deeply linked also to our re­li­gion and our strong re­la­tion to na­ture.

We are do­ing a re­li­gious of­fer­ing called “du-na-gu”, the nine ce­real grains. They stand for com­mon wealth, for di­ver­sity and for gen­eros­ity, in a sense for what we get from na­ture and what we share. I have of­fered these nine ce­real grains in my shop, and I teach peo­ple how to cook them. This is how we build upon tra­di­tion and move to­wards a healthy and sus­tain­able fu­ture.

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