Rice

More than half of the population of Nepal lives in remote hill and mountain regions. Agricultural development in these areas has been neglected for years, and food production fails to meet the needs of the population. Low production is compounded by climate insecurity. Consecutive winter droughts combined with a poor monsoon in 2009 left around 3.4 million people in need of food aid. People living in many parts of the country are reliant on expensive food imported from India. Research undertaken during the 2008–2009 food price crisis showed that the poorest rural families were spending 78% of their income on food. [Source:  United Nations World Food Programme and Nepal Development Research Institute 2008]. When food prices go up, households are forced to sell assets, make cuts in the household budget, and to take on debts , leading to a vicious circle of increasing poverty.

Kaski- a rural idyll? John Callaway 2011

Kaski- a rural idyll? John Callaway 2011

Since the 1990s Nepal has been reliant on imported food to feed its growing population. Imported food is more expensive than food produced locally, because of transport costs. Households in the highlands of Nepal cannot rely on food production alone. In these regions, 75% of families have at least one male family member who migrates – usually to India – for work to support the family income. They may  be away for as much as 11 months per year. Whilst they are away, women and children struggle to cope by eating less, consuming their stocks of seeds, selling livestock and other assets, undertaking wage labour, borrowing from moneylenders, buying on credit with traders and incurring debt. [Source: ‘Improving Food Security for Vulnerable Communities in Nepal’, Oxfam case study, June 2011].

Rice is the primary cereal crop in Nepal, accounting for almost 55% of the total national cereal production. It also provides more than 50% of the total calories required to the Nepalese people. So attending a national consultation on organic rice and sustainable agriculture in Nepal fits in with the work that CSRC are doing. And in the light of attempts by Monsanto, with the support of the Government of Nepal and USAid, to make its presence felt here (albeit in the area of maize rather than rice), there’s some comfort to be had from the fact that traditional and/or organic methods would appear to offer a sustainable solution.

Rice seedlings, Budol, Kavre. John Callaway 2010

Rice seedlings, Budol, Kavre. John Callaway 2010

Although rice is considered the most important crop nationally in terms of harvested area, its production is still insufficient to meet domestic demand. Nepalese farmers distinguish ecosystems for rice primarily on the basis of moisture and fertility of soils. They allocate individual varieties to each ecosystem, based on the principle of ‘best fit’ between ecosystem characteristics and varietal traits, indicating that competition between varieties mainly occurs within the ecosystems. Because of ecological diversity and variation in farmer’s preferences, no one single variety meet needs of millions small holder mountain farmers. Land use and ecosystems determine rice genetic diversity, with marginal land having fewer options for varieties than more productive areas.

“Nepal is very rich in rice biodiversity. Over 1,800 local rice varieties existed … until the 1960s. However, due to quick spreading of improved varieties, over 75% local of varieties have disappeared from the farming fields. Nepal is a rice growing country that cultivates about 1.506 million hectares of rice crop annually with the production and productivity of 3,710 million tons and 2.45 t/ha, respectively”. [ Source: "Special Techniques of Organic Rice Farming in Jumla, Nepal - A Unique Rice Culture in the High Himalayas".  Gyan L. Shrestha (2002)]

Rice planting, Kanchanpur. John Callaway 2011

Rice planting, Kanchanpur. John Callaway 2011

Footnote:  I’ve used this photo before, but I really like the way the young lad in the middle is playing to the camera…

The Asian Farmers Organisation recently undertook a national consultation on organic rice and sustainable agriculture in Nepal which I attended. I’ve neither the space, nor the technical knowledge to offer a detailed critique here, but some interesting pieces of information emerge.

  • There are currently (January 2012) 1247 organic farms in Nepal, covering a total area of around 1,000 hectares.
  • This is in significant contrast to the 2.5 million hectares of land farmed using high inputs of chemical fertilisers, and predominantly the method of operation favoured by rich farmers.
  • There are pilot studies on Systems of Rice Intensification  being undertaken in three districts here (Morang, Chitwan & Kailali). The short version is ” …the SRI (Systems of Rice Intensification), is an agro-ecological methodology for increasing the productivity of irrigated rice by changing the management of plants, soil, water and nutrients. SRI originated in Madagascar in the 1980s and is based on the cropping principals of significantly reducing plant population, improving soil conditions and irrigation methods for root and plant development and improving the plant establishment methods” Click here for further information.
  • And there are traditional techniques which are practiced by smallholders, (and those who are landless and impoverished), which are generally low yield, because of poor seed, poor soils and lack of affordability of fertilisers). 26% of these smallholdings are by ‘default’ organic.
Sundried. Chandeshwori, Banepa. John Callaway 2010

Sundried. Chandeshwori, Banepa. John Callaway 2010

The encouraging thing is that pilot studies have shown that the yield from organic farming is potentially higher per hectare in Nepal.  “This study revealed that organic farming is more cost effective than conventional (farming) and can yield higher than the average. The higher productivity of organic rice than the national and regional average (suggests) that … organic rice production is a viable option for sustainable food production and food security. In spite of no significantly differentiated organic market for organic commodities, the enterprise is profitable…” [Source: R.K. Adhikari: "The Economics of Organic Rice Production". The Journal of Agriculture and Environment, Volume 12, June 2011 ]

One swallow doesn’t make a summer for sure, but it does seem that there are potential links between organic farming and  granting land certification to the rural poor. A greater sense of security offers encouragement to farm more effectively,  and the possibility of co-operative agricultural activity to generate sustainability and marketability by those closest to the land is surely worth exploring…

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