COVID-19: Why Nepal’s farmers should have sustained cereal production

Shifting from cereal to vegetable production came at a cost to the farmers of west Nepal

By Lipy Adhikari, Abid Hussain
Published: Thursday 18 June 2020
To manage the risks of climate change, increased outmigration, etc, farmers in different parts of Nepal switched to vegetable production Photo: Wallpaper Flare

Agriculture and livestock raising contribute to the food security and livelihoods of around 80 per cent of households in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region (HKH).

The two major economies, China and India, are still heavily invested in agriculture. Over half of the land in China is used for agriculture. In India, 50 per cent of the labour force is engaged in the agriculture sector, which accounts for 18 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP).

Similarly, Pakistan’s agriculture sector employs 45 per cent of the country’s labour force and contributes around 18 per cent of the GDP. In landlocked and mostly mountainous Nepal, 66 per cent of the population is engaged in agriculture, which accounts for 36 per cent of the GDP.

Agriculture in the mountains — mostly subsistence and fraught with risk — remains the mainstay of the economy in the HKH region, despite economic diversification, growth of industry, trade and the service sector.

In addition to physical constraints, climate change, increased outmigration, land abandonment, crop depredation by wildlife and market failures have added to farmers’ vulnerabilities in Nepal. To manage these risks, farmers in different parts of the country switched to vegetable production in recent years.

The steady demand for seasonal vegetables, increase in women-led households, short cropping cycles and cash returns attracted farmers to vegetable farming.

This shift, however, comes at a cost: Several farmers in Dadeldhura, Baitadi and Bajhang districts in west Nepal stopped cultivating cereal crops like millet, maize, wheat, and buckwheat since returns are almost six times higher from vegetable farming, revealed a 2019 survey by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.

These households are now dependent on the market for cereals and pulses.

All vegetables in one basket

During the survey, our discussions revealed several farmers in the western districts of Nepal saw a future in off-season vegetable cultivation and seed production.

In many cases, returns from commercial vegetable farming restored their faith in agriculture. In Bajhang district’s Subeda village, farmers said they allocated between 0.5 and 5 ropanis (0.254 hectares) of land for vegetable production.

They grew vegetables ranging from mustard greens to yam. Similarly, in Baitadi district, farmers reported earning well from vegetable seed production, with some farmers earning more than one lakh  Nepalese Rupee (NPR) per year from commercial vegetable and seed production.

Considering the growing interest of farmers in vegetable cultivation, significant returns and the scope for livelihood improvement, the Government of Nepal promoted commercial vegetable farming by providing both financial and technical assistance.

For example, ward four of Bhageswor rural municipality in Dadeldhura district was identified as a pocket area for vegetable cultivation.

Farmers here switched over completely to vegetable production with government support, including subsidies for purchase of vegetable seeds and hand-tractors and building irrigation channels.

Poly houses promoted off-season vegetable farming in coordination with the local government, the Agriculture Information Center and non-profits.

Farmers sold their produce in neighbouring districts and at times, in India’s border districts.

On average, almost every household involved in vegetable farming earned around NPR 40,000-50,000 per year.

The cash income is used to buy cereals and essential commodities for the household.

In the current situation, however, where countries are under lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) for indefinite periods of time, mobility is hampered and supplies are limited.

The livelihoods of these farmers and their sustenance is at stake.

Food and nutrition security are deeply precarious at this point of time since it necessarily requires food self-sufficiency.

Should the crisis continue and cereal stocks run out, how will these farmers address the issue of food self-sufficiency?

Producing for the markets

Dhading district — about 44 kilometres from Kathmandu — has more than ten thousand farmers involved in vegetable farming, with around 30 per cent of the produce sold in capital Kathmandu.

Due to the lockdown, however, there is no access to the market for these vegetables. There are news reports of vegetables rotting in fields because of transport restrictions.

Farmers fear for their survival as their reliance on one large market has backfired in the most unexpected manner. They are unable to sell their produce and do not have sufficient cereals to sustain themselves in the current situation.

On the other hand, people in the capital are facing shortages of vegetables. Earlier, Kathmandu Valley farmers produced a significant amount of vegetables.

Rapid and unplanned urbanisation and conversion of agricultural lands, however, left Kathmandu dependent on other districts for food supplies.

Like in the Kathmandu Valley, the pandemic has impacted entire food systems in the HKH region by disrupting agricultural production activities, food supply chains and trade.

This has added to the vulnerabilities of mountain communities heavily dependent on the plains for food supplies.

Food security planning for the future

The pandemic has forced us to reflect on agricultural sustainability and food security in the country. Farming communities have been forced to confront questions of self-sustenance.

Although commercial farming is a means towards enhancing livelihoods, it is equally important to sustain local cereal production to ensure food and nutrition security at the community and household level.

The disruptions caused by the pandemic and lockdown threaten to worsen malnutrition and stunting in mountain areas. Hunger and malnutrition can also amplify health risks.

As coping mechanisms for the future, the cultivation of traditional crops like cereals and beans should be encouraged and incentivised.

These foods are not just nutritious, but have better shelf life, are resilient to climate shocks and ensure food and nutrition security at the local level.

There is also a growing market for these crops and urban consumers are willing to pay premium prices for traditional crops. This can also help preserve indigenous farming knowledge and local crop varieties and landraces.

Local governments may want to introduce certain land use guidelines with land earmarked for cultivation of food grains and other crops to ensure self-sufficiency at the rural municipality level.

The food storage capacity of rural municipalities must be improved so they can build buffer stocks and respond to food shortages during such crises.

Investments in cold storage facilities can help improve the shelf life of vegetables and prevent distress sales and losses due to market chain disruptions.

Overall, these actions can create jobs and support the local economy.

Diversity is key to managing risks. It is important to promote and market diverse products and not just focus on limited high value produce.

This will help minimise vulnerabilities of farming communities to climate shocks, pests and diseases, crop failure or disruptions such as the one caused by the pandemic.

The establishment of local markets is equally important to prevent major losses and ensure the supply of essential commodities.

News channels have reported that Nepal’s youth have begun cultivating abandoned lands on returning to their native villages due to the current pandemic.

Since any recovery is expected to take time, the government should take steps to encourage youth to stay back and explore a future in agriculture and allied sectors. This will require joint efforts by local governments, non-profits, the private sector, banks and farmer cooperatives.

Each institution must do their part to improve the livelihoods and food security of farming communities in the hills and mountains of Nepal.

The authors are livelihood and food security researchers at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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