Nepal sets ambitious target for food sufficiency


Finance Minister Janardan Sharma’s budget last month unveiled a plan to increase domestic agricultural production by one-third. On paper it sounds like a good way to reduce the country’s food imports. But upon closer inspection, the decision is too ambitious,and unrealistic.

Given the trends in falling agricultural productivity over the decades due to a chronic lack of irrigation, improved seeds, fertiliser and most recently, the climate crisis, domestic farm output is not expected to increase much..

The government wants to boost paddy productivity from the current 5.13 million metric tons to 6.69 which is a 30% increase in just a year. Two years ago, Nepal had hit a record high yield of at 5.62 million metric tons only for it to come down by 8.74% last year due to unseasonal rains at harvest time.

“This is a very ambitious target and even as we are making an action plan on how to achieve it, it looks very challenging,” admits PrakashSanjel of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock.

In 1961, Nepal used to grow only 1.9 metric tons of paddy per hectare. This was before the green revolution and the use of modern technology in agriculture and paddy productivity. But improved seeds, chemical fertilisers and new farming techniques in the last decades have revolutionised agriculture.

Read also: Climate change hits Himalayan rice, Erica Wu

Hybrid seeds that mix varieties of rice with different qualities, capacity to adapt to soil and climate, have significantly increased the yield. In China, hybrid paddy, now grown in more than half of the total rice area, yields an average of 7 metric tons per hectare. Bangladesh has similarly reached productivity of 5 metric tons per hectare with the use of hybrid seeds.

Nepal on the other hand took 60 years to double its productivity. It went up from 2.7 tons per hectare in 2001/02, 2.9 10 years later and now it is 3.47. As per the budget target, this has to increase to 4.5 tons per hectare in a year. In the past, it had taken Nepal nearly 20 years to increase its productivity by one ton a hectare.

At present, about 10% of the total paddy cultivation in Nepal is estimated to be from hybrid varieties and three-fourths of the area has used improved seeds. The National Rice Research Center has recommended hybrid seeds of two varieties namely Hardinath-1 and Hardinath-3, but farmers also use hybrid seeds imported from India.

Government agro scientists first recommended improved seeds in 1966, a CH-45 ChaiteDhan seed that produces 3.5 tons of rice per hectare. Since then, 97 varieties (22 of which have been removed from the recommended list) of improved seeds have been delivered to the farmers.

But the acceptance of hybrid and improved seeds in Nepal has been slow. Paddy seeds should be replaced every 3/4 years, but most farmers the same seed over and over again. In Nepal, the replacement rate of paddy seeds is only about 24%.

The increase in productivity has not kept pace with population growth over the last decades.

A decrease in cultivable land due to rapid urbanisation has also reduced production. While the government estimates that 1.477 million hectares of land is used for paddy plantation, the figure is based on the census conducted 10 years ago and does not take into account changing land use patterns.

“When much of the cultivable land in the Tarai districts are being turned into housing, how can we expect the paddy production to grow?” asks one frustrated official at the ministry.

Similarly, in the lack of a proper irrigation system, farmers are still dependent on rain-fed agriculture. Which is why yields every year are determined by the monsoon. Only a third of Nepal's total cultivable land has irrigation facilities throughout the year.

Irrigation or lack thereof is also the reason farming communities have been so affected by the climate crisis.

Moreover, farmers across Nepal face chronic fertiliser shortage every year, and less than half the demand of 900,000 tons is met. Failure to fertilise paddy plants on time reduces the yield by one-third, and applying 1kg of fertiliser increases harvests by 10kg.

Read also: The price of growing rice, Sahina Shrestha

“Irrigation, improved seeds and chemical fertilisers are the main prerequisites for increasing productivity. Once they are met, Nepal can become self-sufficient,” says Ram BaranYadav of the National Rice Research Program, adding that the country needs a total of 7.2 million tons of paddy production or 5 tons of rice per hectare to feed itself.

At present, Nepal imports 1.6 million tons of paddy to meet demand. In the last 10 months, it imported rice worth Rs42.19 billion. Experts say one way to improve productivity is to prioritise Chaitedhan over the annual paddy as the former’s yield is up to 30% higher.

But it is near impossible to improve agriculture productivity after decades of state neglect. The government can however immediately invest more in procuring chemical fertilisers on time while also promoting organic manure generated domestically at industrial-scale biogas plants.

The finance minister in his budget speech claimed to have significantly increased the budget for agriculture, but it is up just to 6.68% from 6.25% the year before. Added to other pre-existing challenges, this is highly unlikely to meet the government’s production target in a year.

Says Yadav: "It is not possible to leap in production in a single year. It requires long preparation and political will."

Much like paddy, maize and wheat production has not seen any significant growth in recent years. Maize production 30 years ago was 1.62 ton per hectare, today it is 3.15.

The Ministry of Agriculture estimates maize harvest at 3.1 million metric tons this year, up from 2.179 million tons 10 years ago. Even then, this is an increase of just 1 ton in 10 long years. But the budget has outlined additional production of 931,000 metric tons this year alone.

“Sure, it is possible to increase production as per the targets but make sure the farmers have enough fertiliser, seeds and irrigation facilities,” advises ChitraBahadurKunwar of the National Maize Research Program in Rampur.

Read also: Agroecology, Nepal’s answer to climate change, Zachary Barton

Like rice, productivity of maize lies in the use of improved seeds. The Maize Research Program has recommended 7 hybrids and 24 improved varieties to farmers. But according to Kunwar, high-yielding hybrid seeds are planted by only 5% of the farmers, most do not even have access to improved seeds.

The chronic lack of fertilisers also applies to maize, directly affecting its domestic production. An increase in consumption of poultry has meant that farmers are having to meet the deficit by importing an increasing amount of maize for chicken feed.

In the last 10 months, Nepal has imported wheat worth Rs.15.83 billion. The government aims to increase wheat production from 2.145 million metric tons to 2.78. This means an additional production of 643,000 tons in a single year. Earlier, it took Nepal nearly a decade and a half to increase its yield by that much.

The productivity of wheat has reached about 3 tons per hectare, twice as much as 30 years ago but is nowhere close to what is required to be self-sufficient.

Read more: Corruption and Nepal’s chronic fertiliser crisis, Kaustubh Dhital