15-21 August 2014 #720

An Evergreen Revolution

The state’s (mis)treatment of small-hold family farmers keeps rural Nepalis poor, which is why hunger lingers

BIKRAM RAI
Nepal has taken giant strides in improving maternal and child health in the past 10 years. In his lectures in Kathmandu last week, Swedish medical statistician Hans Roslin described Nepal as a “champion” – the only poor country in the world that has made such dramatic improvements.

We all deserve a pat on our backs. But imagine how much further ahead we would have been if we didn’t have to suffer a ruinous ten-year war, if we had stabilised our politics by now, if we had better governance, if … However, there are two Millennium Development Goals in which we haven’t fared as well: gender equality and eliminating extreme hunger. The two may seem unrelated, but are inextricably linked. As Sunir Pandey reported in this paper last week, persistent patriarchal values that encourage child marriage cause malnutrition among mothers and children. Despite campaigns, three-fourths of Nepali women are still anemic.

The proportion of children in Nepal who are physically stunted due to the lack of food decreased from 58 per cent to 40 per cent in the last ten years putting us on track to meet the 30 per cent target. But those are national averages, and in the mountains of western Nepal and in the eastern Tarai, especially among alit and other marginalised families, the malnutrition rate is still an acceptably high 60 per cent. It is a moral outrage that more than half the children in some parts of Nepal still don’t get enough to eat.

In another report from Rasuwa last week, Mallika Aryal wrote that even having enough to eat is not enough to guarantee adequate nutrition. Indeed, new research on public health in India shows that even when they had enough to eat children were stunted because poor sanitation and open defecation led to chronic gastric infections affecting the body’s nutrient uptake. Although the prevalence rate of open defecation is double in India compared to Nepal, sanitation-related malnutrition is a serious issue here too.

The primary reason for hunger, however, is still the chronic and pervasive lack of food caused by low farm productivity, or staples being unaffordable to the poor. In the mid- and far-western mountains of Nepal, rainfed small-hold farms produce enough food to last families only for 160 days in a year – forcing more than half the young male population to migrate to India to work.

The government tries to boost agriculture production through subsidies, incentives and support for cash crop producers or commercial farms supplying produce for the urban market. This is lopsided because 80 per cent of Nepal’s food production comes from small-hold farms.

ecause they are poor and are scattered across remote regions of Nepal, family farmers are ignored. Yet, small-hold agriculture is sustainable, doesn’t need expensive inputs, and has decent productivity despite the lack of irrigation, extension and support from the state.

We need a paradigm shift in the way we look at hunger in this country by not just addressing food security, but nutrition security. This means looking at three aspects of nutrititon: calorie hunger, protein hunger and the hidden hunger caused by deficiency of micronutrients like iron, zinc, and vitamin A. The state’s (mis)treatment of family farmers is keeping rural Nepalis poor, which is why all three types of hunger linger. As men migrate, family-run small farms are also increasingly women-run. Gender imbalance and poor sanitation stunt children, impairing their physical and mental development.

At an international conference on family farming in Chennai last week, green revolution guru M S Swaminathan said increasing calorie intake is not good enough, we need to bolster nutrition by re-aligning our priority to support family farmers. Stunted children today will stunt the country’s future development.

Read also:

Stunted development, Sunir Pandey

Having enough to eat is not enough, Mallika Aryal

Stoves and toilets, Editorial

Where is the peace dividend?, Editorial

Nepal's hunger solution, Rubeena Mahato

Less food, more mouths to feed, Kunda Dixit

The miracle is it's no miracle, Kunda Dixit

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