The official rice-planting day this year fell on 29 June and it was a time for celebration and hope. The monsoon, weak and late this year, has now started picking up steam. And this sets us in the mood to do our annual ruminations on rice.
Recent developments in our agriculture have changed the equilibrium of the rice economy in Nepal. The country has failed to keep pace with the cutting edge technologies in rice production-large scale farming techniques, intensive use of fertilisers and other management inputs as well as high-yield seeds that improve quality of the rice as well.
While the last few decades of the past century saw newly developed genetic materials given away for free, it will not be so anymore with new high yielding varieties. The dwarfing genes discovered by Norman 'Green Revolution' Borlaugh in the 1960s made high yielding varieties possible. If patented and used commercially, these genes could have earned billions for Borlaugh, but he decided to share his knowledge.
Various international laws will now make it unlikely that farmers in Nepal will have free or even affordable access to the new miracle seeds. Even if they did, it is unlikely the majority of the farmers will have the means to take advantage of their genetic potential to produce rice at a price that can compete with the huge and growing agro-economy in India or the rest of the rice producing world. Nepal's tarai rice has been devastated not by pests or floods, but by cheap Indian rice.
If we cannot fight the other rice growers on the technology or price battlefield, then we must choose a competitive advantage in other areas. This will be in the cultivation of traditional varieties that require very little modern inputs. In fact, the lack of modern inputs will be the actual strength of the old varieties plus the superior taste and texture of these traditional varieties.
Nepal has over 1,700 traditional varieties of rice-one of the most diverse regions for rice in the world. Many of these will soon be extinct. Every region in Nepal has at least one that is famous for quality and taste: Kala Namak from Taulihawa, the fragrance of which is said to be the gift of the Buddha, Jetho Budho from Pokhara, Krishna Bhog in Dhangadi, Birenful from Biratnagar, and different basmati varieties all across the tarai.
All it needs is proper cultivation techniques and intelligent marketing to compete with any imported rice found in the market. As the tentacles of WTO take hold in Nepal, there will be easy and cheap access to imported rice from more sophisticated economies. It will not make sense to grow the modern rice varieties for the market when the low productivity of Nepali farms produce rice at a cost much higher than the cost of imported rice.
It is of course not very easy to revert back to these varieties. Lack of proper recognition of these varieties in the marketplace has been a big obstacle. Few of these high-value rices are marketed in an unadulterated form. But a beginning can be made here in Kathmandu by marketing these old varieties under their own names and places of cultivation. Purchase of the paddy at a very reasonable price would help ensure purity of the variety. The higher price would then offset the lower yield of the traditional Nepali rices.
Marketing of these varieties could initially be a problem. Holding a rice fair to introduce these varieties to the public could help, but there has to be someone or some institution which can go around the country identifying these varieties and the farmers who are willing to grow these varieties. It is difficult to imagine the government stepping in to do this, so perhaps it should be a private group. After all, if you can have book fairs and car fairs, why not a rice fair for our staple crop?
Kabindra Pradhan runs a farm in Butwal.