17-23 March 2017 #850

The price of growing rice

Can Nepal regain self-sufficiency in paddy production? Experts say yes.
Sahina Shrestha

Eighty per cent of Nepalis live off the farm. Agri-culture accounts for one-third of Nepal’s GDP, but the country has turned from a net exporter to importer of rice.

Investment in irrigation, high-yield seeds, mechanisation, and pricing incentives can easily boost rice production and create jobs on the farm for Nepalis. All it needs is for agriculture to have more government priority than it currently receives.

The food balance sheet for 2015-16 shows a deficit of 1,106,892 tons in rice as production plummeted to 4.3 million tons. Things are looking better this year as harvests are up by 21 per cent to 5.23 million tons because of a good monsoon. The Prime Minister Agriculture Modernisation Project, if properly implemented, could decrease dependency on food imports, especially rice from India.

Since most farms are rain-fed, the single most important contribution to boosting productivity would be irrigation. Only 1.3 hectares of farms in Nepal get year-round irrigation – 18 per cent of the total arable land. Monsoon rice is planted in 1,450,000 hectares, while only 112,000 hectares grow spring rice because of the lack of irrigation.

Says Mukunda Bhusal, Crop Production Officer at Department of Agriculture: “Rice imports will go down if we can increase the production of spring rice, but that needs irrigation.”

However, Nepalis are moving away from the land or migrating overseas for work as soon as they leave school. Booming real estate prices and urban expansion have reduced total cultivated area. And cheap rice from India does not make it worthwhile for Nepali farmers to grow paddy.

“The other way is to change the food habits of Nepalis and replace rice with other grains,” says Bhusal. But that may be easier said than done in a country where “Have you eaten rice today?” is a form of greeting, and people in the mountains are turning to rice from traditional millet and buckwheat.

The trend is most visible in Morang, once Nepal’s grain basket. Out-migration of young men and the economics of agriculture has meant that it does not make sense to invest labour in paddy farming.

“In Morang alone, 10,000 hectares of land has gone fallow in the past decade,” says Rajendra Uprety of the Regional Directorate of Agriculture in Biratnagar, “land that was previously farmed is now used for non-agricultural purposes.”

Along the border, Indian businessmen often come to Nepal to buy harvested paddy in bulk, dehusk it in their mills and sell the rice back to Nepal. Farmers are also forced to sell paddy at a lower rate to rice mills when there is a surplus in India and the excess rice dumped in Nepal.

Government apathy, lack of support and subsidies mean that there is little cushion for farmers if the crops don’t do well, or don’t sell. There is no minimum price for food grain, although the Department of Agriculture has asked the Nepal Food Corporation to buy paddy, spring paddy and wheat at a minimum cost if sales are down.

Economist Rajendra Pradhan of the Department of Agriculture says there is little Nepal can do to stop cheap imports from across the open border. But boosting productivity would enhance food security so that with the spreading road network domestic supply can meet demand in remote areas.

Pradhan explains, “For national food security, production is not enough. People should have access to food and there should be opportunities of employment in agriculture as well.”

Read Also:

Leaving or staying?, Raj Uprety

Nepal's quiet green revolution, Sonia Awale

Living off the land, Editorial

Growing much more rice, Rajendra Uprety

Nepal's hunger solution, Rubeena Mahato