Nepali Times Asian Paints
Feeding the Karnali


Millet, buckwheat and Cheeno grows aplenty in Simikot, Humla

Despite decades of food assistance from the government and aid agencies, little seems to have changed in the Karnali region. Food shortages are as bad as ever, and there are claims that dependency on subsidised rice has meant what little was left of cultivation has faltered. The general impression is that the dry and rocky terrain of the mid and far west region cannot sustain wide-scale agriculture and that there is no alternative to trucking in food from the outside. But is this really necessary? Documentary film-maker Gorakh Bista of Srinagar, Humla, doesn't seem to think so.

Karnali already has the crops it needs to feed itself, he says. "If we grow the right crops, there is no reason we can't produce enough food for ourselves," says Bista. He cites the example of Cheeno, or Proso millet, a crop that grows readily in Humla. Cheeno is one of the major winter crops in Karnali but is not as extensively farmed as wheat or paddy. "If we can get people to grow Cheeno instead of the low yielding wheat or rice, there would be enough food for everybody," Bista claims. Resham Amgai, scientist at the National Agriculture Research Council (NARC), cannot agree more. "Cheeno grows well in a dry and cold climate; it does not need much water and can be cultivated from the lowlands to the highlands, making it perfect for places like Humla."

A woman winnows freshly harvested cheeno in Simikot
Crops like Kaguno (foxtail millet), barley, buckwheat, beans and finger millet all grow well in mountain soil, are easily comparable to rice and wheat in terms of nutrition (see box), and have long been the staple of highland people. With proper promotion and wide-scale cultivation, these crops may offer the best long-term solution for hunger in the region. "Rather than spending millions in airlifting substandard rice to Karnali, the government should invest in research and cultivation of hill crops, irrigation and market creation," Bista says. Scientist at the tellingly named Underutilized Crops Unit at NARC, Sumitra Pantha, says, "Millet, buckwheat and beans grow well even in a harsh climate, with limited water and efforts. They are also highly nutritious and can well substitute for rice as a staple."

But the preference for rice may mean that production of such crops will go down. "Even in Simikot most people would not be able to tell you about Cheeno today. If the trend continues, most of these crops may die out in a few generations," Bista says. His warning echoes the fate of quinoa, which until the colonisation of South America was one of the primary crops of the Incas. Despite having been cultivated for nearly 7,000 years, this highly nutritive crop was derided and its cultivation suppressed by the conquering Spaniards.

Cheeno or Proso Millet
The government's lack of interest in protecting Nepal's hill crops may mean this is not an unlikely prospect. Pantha says that hill crops have long been neglected. The government has only made three varieties of millet available in decades, compared to hundreds of varieties of wheat and rice. The Underutilized Crops Unit under NARC has been collecting local varieties, carrying out studies and recommending varieties of hill crops for commercial release for some years now. Studies on buckwheat, finger millet, Cheeno, Kaguno, barley and amaranth are ongoing.

But the ultimate challenge may be to get the locals interested in these crops. Says Pantha: "In many places we saw people growing millet as fodder for cattle. The government has to introduce policies to prioritise the production and consumption of these crops."


Although looked down upon as lowly food, most hill crops are powerhouses of nutrition. Millet is a good source of iron and magnesium with the highest iron content for any grain barring Amaranth and Quinoa. It has also high protein and carbohydrate content compared to rice. Buckwheat has high levels of protein and the amino acid lysine. It is rich in calcium, magnesium, phosphorous and Vitamin B. Barley is rich in soluble fibre, niacin and iron and is known to reduce cholesterol levels. Amaranth, probably the most neglected of the crops in Karnali, has the highest level of lysine among all grains and a high fibre content.

Read also:
The West is hungry, NARESH NEWAR

1. beeb
The other main problem, I think is the culture of elitism in Nepal. 'Rice' is considered to be an elite food, even in places where it can't be grown. Equally disparaging are the rice-eaters' (bhaatey?) attitude towards those who don't eat them. If you have seen the neo-elites aversion to rural cultures and even food like dindho etc, then you will understand what I mean. The thinking that there is one-right-solution for everything and our disregard for diversity is also to be blamed.

There is a lot the government can do, but only if we are willing to hemp.

2. mabog
Good that NT seems to be now going Karnali after all-Terai.

3. Kumar
Dont expect anything from the government. They cant keep kathmandu clean. Do you expect them to look after Karnali. I wonder if any of these leaders ever been there, let alone develop karnali.

4. Purna Rajbhandari
I think the article raised the genuine issues which has to be integrated into the policy. The research at the field level is prime necessary  on the indigenous variety. Prevailing climate change issues and pressing water scarcity and adaptation, authority need to think and calculate the carbon footprint of carrying the food to feed the people in remote Nepal. We should not forget that the civilization in that area exist since century.

Here, what is important is the research on the end food product, how we can make the existing crops tasty and fancy. So , Government need to have food research to come up with some good and tasty food to be served on the plate. There are several examples around the world which can be easily taken in to rather reinventing the wheel. 

5. Omar Dai
It was amusing to read that Bhaateys ( rice eaters) are considered the elites.  The Indonesian government recently started an educational campaign discouraging its people from eating only rice because of rising number of Diabetics among its population.  Under the current global pace of economic upward mobility, health consciousness, as well as feared shortage of food,  it will not be too late before well to do people will be jumping to pay high price for these so called lowly hill food.  Once the transportation problem is addressed, I am afraid that most of the Nepalese people may not be able to afford these energy packed God's gift cause already people in East Asia are paying almost US$10 for a loaf of bread claiming to be made of all kinds of energy grains such as buckwheat, wheat and God knows what.  So, I hope that the Nepalese government becomes aware of this global food resource trend and protect its precious food resources.  I hope these breadbaskets will not be rented out to our big neighbourly brothers for their cash. 

6. Gorakh Bista
thank you very much all the develop met mind and it should  be the national issue of  the save landing   for food scarcity in Nepal. Nepal has a lot of dry land so it so possible to farm.

7. R RAI

Fantastic writing.Thank you Ms Mahato.

beeb is absolutely right- people in Karnali and Nepal could do without bhaate mentality and bhaate attitude. This erroneous belief-system has caused not only diseases and deaths but hindered development as well.

I fondly remember posters showing Bhaat bahadur and Saag bahadur in the villages many years ago(to encourage people to eat green leaves).

We could do with similar posters-bhaat bahadur and Cheeno/kodo bahadur!

8. Rituraj Sapkota

During our stay at Dolphu village in Mugu last year, there was an ongoing rice-for-work scheme. The villagers would work to build the health post and the WFP  paid them in rice. I don't know how sustainable this is, the work schemes are soon going to finish and people will have to go back to boiled potatoes. A few years of making rice a staple diet does not sound like a very convincing idea. Added to that is the fact that the local have to walk for a day from the village to another called Pulu ( a day's walk away) to collect the rice.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)