Food security is national securityNepal’s checklist for improving agricultural production
Globally, there has been a massive increase in food crop production mainly due to increased land use and a rapid rise in yield.
Yet, hunger not only persists but is growing, with 850 million people not getting enough food, and some 345 million facing serious food insecurity in 2023.
Conflict, climate change and supply chain disruption are causing global food prices to constantly rise, and poorer households are facing unmet dietary needs and nutrition for children.
Decline in household food production means an increasing number of Nepalis have to buy food, and the country’s dependence on imports is increasing even though 60-70 % of the population is supposed to be engaged in agriculture. Nepal is high in the global hunger index, with 36% of children being stunted.
Year after year, farmers are worried about delayed rainfall due to changes in weather patterns and are unable to plant paddy on time. The shortage and high prices of fertiliser and availability of seeds is a recurring issue. Farmers do get a reasonable price for their produce, making crop farming less and less attractive.
Food Security is a pathway to peace. Rising food insecurity can be a trigger for instability and conflict. Ensuring access to adequate nutrition for all is an important part of a country’s responsibility for the wellbeing of the citizens.
At the historic UN General Assembly Summit in 2015, 193 member countries including Nepal agreed to transform the world by meeting 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. One of the goals is to eliminate all forms of hunger, but will Nepal meet it?
At the recent Food Security Summit Plus 2 in Rome, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal stated: “It is important that we address the bottlenecks in every sector for making a leap towards zero hunger.” The PM’s statement needs to translate into action with leadership, commitment, program activities and financing, so all bottlenecks are removed.
The government’s budget for 2023/24 makes a commitment for a national campaign for self-reliance in agriculture with an increase in food production from 10.7 million tons to 14 million tons and a reduction in imports by 30 % by the end of 2024. This is clearly unrealistic within the time frame and in absence of inadequate budget allocation, shortage of key agricultural inputs, lack of irrigation and weather challenges.
Nepal’s Agricultural Development Strategy (2015 to 2035) to modernise agriculture focusing on increasing production, processing and marketing can be a game changer. The PM’s Agriculture Modernisation Program is linked to the strategy and covers a 10-year period ending 2023, but there are serious implementation challenges along with poor alignment with Nepal’s move to a federal system.
The climate crisis adds to all threats to food security. Shifts in rainfall patterns are affecting Nepal’s food basket in the Tarai. The 2023 monsoon saw extreme weather and a long dry spell. Eight districts in the plains suffered from delayed rain with an overall estimated shortfall in paddy of 15-20%.
Migration of youth has led to a serious shortage in labour and families are leaving their land fallow in hilly regions. A million hectares of land is uncultivated in the hilly districts.
Besides high costs of agricultural inputs, low productivity in all three major cereal crops like paddy, wheat and maize are of serious concern. Fragmentation in farm size means challenges with achieving economies of scale in modernisation and corresponding profitability of farming.
It is estimated that Nepal currently produces 10.5 million tons of cereals (5.5 million tons of rice, 2.7 million tons of maize, 2 mil. tons of wheat and about 0.3 million tons of other crops such as millets. There is an estimated supply gap of around 2 million tons of paddy for this year.
India is the main source of food commodities for Nepal. In absence of price stabilisation measures in Nepal, when India announces restrictions on global food exports, there is concern about sudden food price rises across Nepal.
Millets are adaptable to harsh climates and grow well in mountain regions under rain-fed conditions, but its cultivation is declining. Since 2023 has been declared as the International Year of Millet, Nepal should promote its cultivation and use in our diet.
Crop destruction by monkeys, wild boars and elephants is most probably due to their habitat being encroached upon. An updated national strategy to deal with this menace and support to farmers is desperately needed.
The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) in a recent survey found that about 4.26 million Nepalis eat insufficient diets. There are also regional disparities in household food consumption, with the lowest level in Karnali Province consuming an inadequate diet (22.5%), followed by Sudurpaschim Province (16.9%). Overall, 45.4 % of children between 6 to 23 months of age did not meet the minimum recommended dietary diversity, with the lowest level in Karnali (52.3%), Sudurpaschim (51.7%) and Lumbini (51.4%).
Given that nearly 70% of households are buying their food, continued rise in food prices and decrease in income will inevitably lead to an increase in malnutrition.
A nationwide program for meals to students up to middle school in all government schools allocates Rs 15 per student per day, which is insufficient. Fortunately, some municipalities are now contributing additional funds for school feeding programs, and this trend should spread.
Despite subsidies for transportation of rice for sale to poor households, supply is irregular. Encouraging consumption of native crops could lead to resilient farming, regular supplies and possibly better nutrition.
Despite the lack of support, there are success stories, mainly due to individual and private sector engagement. The growth in the dairy and poultry industries is commendable. Individuals returning from overseas employment are getting into vegetable farming, piggery and goats with increased self-reliance.
Here is a checklist for the government to make an impact:
- Introduce and implement ambitious plans with budget increase and governance structure for farming, along with expansion of livestock, poultry, fishery, horticulture, olericulture and medicinal plants.
- Make extensive adaptation and mitigation measures to address the climate crisis with expansion of irrigation, cultivation of indigenous rain-fed crops and diversification of livelihood.
- Protect and improve the livelihood of vulnerable communities with safety nets and employment to ensure food security. Review existing support programs for impact and accountability.
- Establish a strong governance structure to coordinate implementation, review and monitor progress in program delivery, outcome and impact.
- Bring fallow land into cultivation, and provide assistance to small farmers, with support in technical know-how, marketing, with the engagement of the private sector. Enable and increase women’s engagement in the production process.
- Seek partnership to improve the agricultural sector's productivity. India and China have extensive experiences in transformation of their agriculture from food deficit to food surplus nations. More exchanges, cooperation and partnership with these countries and UN system, in particular the Rome-based agencies WFP, FAO, IFAD and UNDP, are needed
Bishow Parajuli was formerly the UN WFP Representative in India, Yemen and Egypt and UNRC/UNDP Representative in Myanmar and Zimbabwe.