Highlights from “Scaling Up Agroecology in the Himalayas Together”

Author: Melinda Foshat, KU School of Law


Much of the work of the Global RESTORATION Project revolves around agroecology and producing food for human consumption in ways that are based in natural systems and not degrading of natural landscapes. Proposals, reforms, and research initiatives to promote agroecology are on the rise world-wide, as evidenced in this report.

About the Event

On April 28–29, experts, researchers, policymakers, and advocates from the Himalayan region convened virtually to inspire and guide policies supporting agroecology and organic agriculture. The purpose of “Scaling Up Agroecology in the Himalayas Together,” which was organized by IFOAM Organics International and the World Future Council with support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, was to increase awareness for the need to redesign current food and socioeconomic systems and create conducive policy frameworks for sustainable, equitable, and resilient food systems. Experts from India, Bhutan, and Nepal provided analysis on different methods for implementing the ten elements of agroecology and IFOAM’s four principles of organic agriculture, which are health, ecology, fairness, and care, on a policy level.

One question on everyone’s mind was how we can recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and look forward to a more sustainable future. Dr. Gerd Müller, who is the Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, emphasized how even before the pandemic, the number of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition had grown. Farmland, water, and biodiversity were already declining dramatically. “We must invest more in agriculture for the survival of humankind…business as usual is no longer an option for our planet.”

Updates on the Transformation in the Himalayan Region

The Himalayan region expands over 3,500 kilometers and is home to around 240 million people. This fragile region is crucial for our global ecosystem. Described by one panelist as “the pulse of the planet,” the Himalayan glaciers provide fresh water to billions of people. To improve livelihoods and preserve natural resources, Bhutanese, Nepalese, and Indian policymakers recognize the need to transition toward sustainable agricultural systems. Political commitments have been implemented in varying degrees with policies and programs that include budgets to support agroecology and organic farming. Still, Xhona Hysa, a Global Policy Expert for IFOAM Organics International, stresses that agricultural budget allocation for organic and agricultural practices remain disproportionately low compared to those provided to conventional farming. Hysa claims “it is imperative that countries take a holistic approach when it comes to mainstreaming sustainability in policymaking.”


The Minister of Agriculture for Bhutan, H.E. Lyonpo Yeshey Penjor, underscored the interconnection between nature, biodiversity, and agriculture and recognized Bhutan’s efforts to make its agricultural practices in harmony with the environment. Minister Penjor links the Gross National Happiness of Bhutan directly to ecological and organic production. In 2012, Bhutan declared its mission to become the world’s first 100% organic country by 2020. Due to a recent shift in priorities toward national food security and self-sufficiency, Bhutan scaled back its support to organic agriculture and began to facilitate farmers’ access to synthetic fertilizer. However, Bhutan still embraces the principle of organic production and strives to prepare its society, farmers, consumers, and markets to transition to organic products. Another step is to identify specific products for specific locations so that they can develop into organic areas. In 2017, the Bhutanese government renewed its support to the organic mission and set a new target of going organic by 2035. Bhutan’s twelfth Five Year Plan (2018–2023) established the National Organic Flagship Programme which aims to commercialize the production of potential organic commodities, promote value chain development through investment and enterprise, create economic, livelihood and employment opportunities, create access and availability to organic farm inputs, and promote holistic integrated farming systems and environmental conservation and natural resource management. Another target of the Flagship Programme is to reduce chemical fertilizers by 25% and chemical pesticides by 20%. Still, Bhutan faces several challenges to going organic including low yields in traditional varieties, chemical use caused by labor shortages, high production costs, and low mechanization potential due to the fragmented topography and farming systems. As one panelist stated, it is important to remember that there are challenges to both organic and conventional farming. Therefore, we must base our decisions on the kind of societal model we want to achieve for human health, nutrition, and happiness.


India is significantly contributing to the momentum that is driving transformation in the Himalayan region. With support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, 11 projects are underway for sustainable agriculture with funds of over 200 million euros (244,278,000 U.S.D). The goal is to make significant progress by 2030 on increasing small farmers’ incomes, adapting agriculture to climate change, and providing food security for India’s poorest rural people. Dr. Rajiv Kumar, the Chairman of The National Institute for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), emphasized how the transformation of agriculture in India should be done in a manner that contributes to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “We need to take steps to make our agriculture sustainable, resilient, climate adaptable, and provide sustenance to our farmers and increase their incomes at the same time.” Although the Green Revolution brought food security to India, many agree it has run its course. There needs to be a strong push toward natural farming techniques, which in one experiment led by Subhash Palekar, has proven to reduce costs by 30-40%, reduce water consumption by 30%, and improve organic carbon within the soil. In Haryana, universities have reported over a 100% increase in organic carbon within the first year. Dr. Kumar claims this has the potential to become “the biggest carbon sequestration program in the world.” Multiple Indian states are also experimenting with policies and practices to achieve a more sustainable future.

Sikkim is the first state worldwide to become 100% organic and is the first Indian state to have 76,000 ha (out of 102,000 ha used for agricultural production) of contiguous land certified as organic. As a pioneer of agroecology, Sikkim has shown the world how to make agriculture more productive and sustainable. In Sikkim, agriculture serves two purposes: to preserve the ecosystem and health of citizens and to promote sustainable development for economic growth and employment generation. Currently, agriculture in Sikkim is a source of income for more than 66,000 family farms. Sikkim is also one of the world’s biggest biodiversity hot spots. Rich biodiversity and rich soil are some of the many reasons Sikkim chose to become organic. Additionally, chemical inputs were already very low. Unlike in most of India, the government of Sikkim discourages the use of chemical inputs. Sikkim farmers are not provided subsides to use chemical fertilizers and must pay full price. Sikkim has implemented several farming initiatives including creating infrastructure such as soil testing laboratories and biofertilizer production units and providing financial assistance to farmers to produce their own inputs. By marketing their own brand, “Sikkim Organic,” Sikkim hopes to give their farmers a market advantage.

During the last few decades, Himachal Pradesh has observed a sharp increase in farmers’ cost of cultivation. Soil degradation and water requirements have also steadily increased. Continuous use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides increase crop yield but not without causing significant harm to the environment. In 2018, the government of Himachal Pradesh launched Prakritik Kheti Khushal Kisan (Natural Farming, Prosperous Famers), a scheme designed to enhance farmers’ incomes through the adoption of natural farming techniques. According to Shri Jai Ram Thakur, Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, over 1.15 lakh (115,000) farmers have practiced natural farming successfully on an area of 6,500 ha. Initial scientific reports indicate that soil fertility under various crops has improved and natural farming practices have reduced farmers’ cost of cultivation and irrigation requirements significantly. Enabling sustainable food system mechanisms based on natural farming is an ongoing process that the government of Himachal Pradesh continues to pursue.


Nepal has recently had a growing interest from both the governmental and non-governmental sectors to promote agroecology and organic farming. In 2004, the government began promoting organic farming as a strategy to modernize the agricultural sector. Policy guidelines and periodic action plans are currently in place to fill gaps and overcome shortcomings of previous policies. In 2018, the Karnali Province, with support from the federal government, enacted policies and implemented development programs to begin transforming into a fully organic province. Currently, Nepal engages in traditional low-tech farming practices that are suitable for agroecology. Many areas are already organic due to current policies which promote and offer subsidies for organic fertilizer. Smaller farms integrate livestock agriculture and agroforestry and market their products in China and India. There is also a growing demand to consume safe and healthy products in Nepal. Additionally, national agriculture standards from 2008 are currently under revision but a national organic accreditation body has already been endorsed. Organic certification programs are in place for apples, cardamom, coffee, and several other vegetables. Efforts are underway to establish organic course curriculum in every university and two universities have already started offering courses on organic agriculture. Research has commenced at the Organic Agriculture Research Institute while zoning of agricultural land is beginning in the Karnali Province. There have also been developments in biopesticide and bio-organic fertilizer. During this time of change, it is important to strategize frameworks around the producers instead of focusing solely on consumers. As one Nepalese farmer stated, “policymakers should engage farmers and local people and take their perspectives for preparing appropriate policy so that development efforts will be continued in a sustainable manner as it would not be promoted without appropriate policy.”

Key Takeaways
Full-Cost Accounting

The principle of full-cost accounting factors environmental, economic, and social impacts into produce costs. The price of the product might not reflect its true cost without factoring in medical bills and environmental cleanup costs. Anne-Sophie Poisot, a Programme Coordinator at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, stated “there is no such thing as cheap food. If we think our food is cheap then somebody else is paying the price. It’s either the next generation or ourselves by paying state and hospital bills. From increased health issues and the burden of non-communicable diseases, our environment and our children will bear the cost.”

A Holistic Approach

Finance is only one part of the equation. We need an integrative, systemic approach that promotes farming as a lifestyle and a healthy way of living. There needs to be a greater emphasis on labeling farmers as entrepreneurs. As Surya Kumar, the Deputy Manager Director of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development in India (NABARD) stated, “the most important part is unlearning and learning.” We need to implement a systemic approach in which the whole community can learn and contribute, including women and youth. As one farmer stated, “for us, agroecology is not just a form of production where we regenerate the soil, take care of species, fauna, flora, and water. It also cares for relationships, where we have gender equity in decisions. Where we have the inclusion of young people and women, and a fair division of labor and recognitions as well.” We must not choose a reactive approach over a more preventative and holistic approach.

ONE Himalayan Brand

The Himalayas are a region where great innovations are currently underway. Though each country faces unique challenges, they are united by their shared values, mountain terrain, and lifestyle. It is incredibly important that countries in the region come together to work toward a common goal of preserving and restoring this vulnerable––yet incredibly valuable––mountain ecosystem. By compiling their research, experience, and efforts, these countries can make significant headway toward upscaling agroecology for the entire planet. By incorporating standardized practices to produce a standardized product, or ONE Himalayan brand, “[we] are preparing [our] nations for the generations to come,” stated Kesang Tshomo, the National Organic Flagship Program Manager for the Ministry of Agriculture of Bhutan. “We can start bringing the revolution together in place of working in the phased manner and once [we have a] consortium, then we can identify the gaps, how to fill those gaps, how much money we need to invest…so the policy can be devised, and the national and international organizations can work together to [fill] those gaps. [Only then can we make] good progress.” Combining efforts is a great way to increase product volume and attract international attention. We must give the world a reason to support this iconic mountain ecosystem, which provides fresh water to billions of people. “There is really something there that the world has to watch, and the world has to support,” said Poisot.


Organic Regenerative Agriculture sits at the very heart of the kind of RESTORATION that the Global RESTORATION Project envisions for the world. For us at the GRP, examining the promise of agroecology and territorially integrated operational networks is valuable. This conference on “Scaling Up Agroecology in the Himalayas Together” is no exception. By establishing ONE Himalayan Brand, the countries of the Himalayan region can move beyond age-worn notions of sovereignty to create integrated networks for managing their mountain ecosystem based on practical ecological realities. Such territorially integrated operational networks are a prime example of how the Himalayan region can scale up agroecology through innovative human solutions. The Himalayas include fifty mountains, many of which form Earth’s highest peaks. They have blessed us with breathtaking views for thousands of years. Humanity now climbs a different kind of apex. It is crucial that we seek more sustainable, regenerative, ecological solutions before we reach the point of no return. If we can collaborate and treat our biomes as ONE, there is a chance we way peak a glimpse at a brighter tomorrow.

What’s Next?
Food Policy Forum for Change

The Food Policy Forum Change is an online platform designed as a safe space for policymakers to exchange ideas and research. The goal of the platform is to help and encourage policymakers of the Himalayan region to work together toward a unified vision and to facilitate communication and sharing of research, resources, and knowledge.

Food Systems Summit

The 2021 Food Systems Summit will be held on July 26–28. The Summit will bring together key players from the worlds of science, business, policy, healthcare and academia as well as farmers, indigenous people, youth organizations, consumer groups, environmental activists, and other key stakeholders. The Summit will launch bold new actions to deliver progress on all 17 SDGs, each which relies to some degree on healthier, more sustainable and equitable food

The Organic World Congress

The 2021 Organic World Congress will be held virtually on September 6–10. Organic stakeholders, farmers, researchers, and policymakers will address questions around resilience, societal transformation, health, and food sovereignty during the world’s largest organic gathering.


“Scaling Up Agroecology in the Himalayas Together”

Organized by: IFOAM Organics International, The World Future Council, with support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development

Please click the dates to watch the recordings of the two-day event: Day 1 – 28th of April and Day 2 – 29th of April