The global pandemic has prompted many to call for a reform in agriculture to create jobs and boost food production. But the question that needs to be answered first is why Nepalis who depended on agriculture left the land in the first place.
You cannot solve a problem unless you ask the right question.
A disconnect has emerged between farmers and farm with hundreds of thousands of able-bodied men leaving for salaried jobs in the cities or overseas.
The lockdown that is now in its 6th week has exposed this crisis in many ways – the shortage of farmers endangering food security, the fragile connectivity to market, the tens of thousands who have run out of food and cash and are on the long march to villages from cities.
Introducing reforms in agriculture therefore requires an understanding of why farming has lost its appeal for working men and women, and the problems of extension, productivity, urbanisation, and access to markets.
The global pandemic and lockdowns have put food security at the forefront of the national agenda. We must understand that farming is directly interlinked to migration, unemployment, literacy and market structures.
A rise in non-communicable disease cases has been linked to the reduced consumption of vegetables and fruits, even as Nepal imports most of its food. With the lockdown expected to be extended beyond 7 May, local produce does not reach the market and rots in the fields or in storage. The fields remain fallow.
Some have floated the idea of people who have gone back to their villages to start farming again. However, under current agricultural practices, simply increasing manpower in the fields will not increase production because of the lack of incentives for farming.
This is an outcome of the commercialisation of traditional agriculture which disincentivised farmers. A study of Chitwan has shown that agriculture marketing systems under the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives are very primitive, and middlemen dominating items such as rice.
This means government grants and earnings of farmers is taken away by the middlemen. Families do not have the margin from farming to sustain needs such as medical care, education and debt repayment. Farmers also lack the means to rear livestock and afford mechanisation to improve yield.
Removing middlemen, or capping their cut, would be the single most important policy reform that would provide farmers the incentive to grow more food. In addition, they would be more willing to go back to the land if state grant, soft loans and other technical inputs are made directly available.
The long-term foundation for sustainable agriculture must also take into account the import-export of produce, the geopolitics of the food trade, the investment capacity of the government, agroforestry, out-migration and pricing.
Mechanisation of agriculture and amalgamation of holdings through cooperatives have boosted harvests where they have been tried in Nepal. But ideas for affordable agricultural equipment, such as seed dispensers that make farming less labour-intensive that have been pitched in the National Agricultural Research Center (NARC), remain shelved.
A revaluation of the current agricultural machinery is therefore necessary to identify areas where labour can be reduced and output maximised, all the while keeping the financial and environmental limitations in mind.
There have been successful initiatives to provide organic agricultural produce to urban markets, these must be scaled up nationwide. Reevaluating the goals of agriculture from a focus on commercialism to focusing on ensuring food security and sustainability is the way forward.
Using legal measures to address exploitation of farmers by middlemen is a key step. Cooperation between the farmers, the government and cooperatives must be streamlined. An incentive to work the fields must be created so that agriculture is not just a matter of subsistence for farmers, but an activity that raises their living standards.
All this must tie in with national policy goals of reducing imports, and increasing self-reliance in food production. Agricultural methods must blend modern scientific knowledge and traditional expertise so that production is enhanced at the expense of public health and safety.
Acknowledging the inadequacies of current agricultural practices and reorienting them during the lockdown will allow Nepal to chart a new course that benefits farmers, consumers, and the national economy.
Krishna Poudel, PhD, is an agricultural policy analyst.