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.
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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%.