Nepali Times
Not enough to eat


Till the late 1960s, Nepal used to be a food exporting country. Today it is importing nearly Rs 6 billion worth of grain and other foodstuff every year. Fifty-five of Nepal's 75 districts-16 mountain districts, 33 hill districts and six tarai districts suffer from chronic food shortage.

The government's subsidised food supply programme meets only four percent of the total food deficit of these districts, government employees consuming most of the supply.

These alarming statistics were presented recently by Krishi Sarokar Samaj (Agriculture Concern Society) based on data collected from a variety of sources, including the Agriculture Department Market Development Directorate. But even though it sounds alarming, food security experts and government officials say that although the long-term trends are not good, there is no need to ring the alarm bells just yet.

"You have to see food production in totality," said one government official. "Just because grain production is down, it doesn't mean people are starving. There is much more cash crop and vegetables. In fact general nutrition levels are getting better." The area under rice production, especially in the tarai, has plummeted in the last two years after cheap rice from India flooded the Nepali market. Farmers have turned to dal, sugarcane or other cash crops.

This year's grain requirement is sure to go up because of natural population increase, and the import bill for rice and wheat will increase slightly. Nepal's population is growing at 2.5 percent a year, faster than grain production of 2.3 percent.

This year's late monsoon in the eastern tarai is expected to affect rice harvests and bring down production by up to 15 percent. But food planners say the shortfall will be covered by an increase in production in the western, mid-western and far-western regions that saw a healthy monsoon. The overall national paddy output will therefore not be affected.

To be sure, a change in food habits, diversified cash crops, and an inefficient and unbalanced production and distribution system have all contributed to Nepal's precarious food security situation. National food security takes into account factors like increased food production, better physical access to food and markets, increased and diversified income and employment opportunities and better health and nutrition. The production and distribution imbalance of the food deficit areas are what concern planners most.

"Food is available but in many areas there are problems of access and affordability, important aspects in ensuring household food security," says Gyan Prasad Sharma, an agriculture economist with the National Planning Commission. "Then there is the nutritional aspect to consider. You may have enough to eat but you may not be getting the proper nutrition."

Despite being a food deficit area, where local production is sufficient for only six months of the year, Solu Khumbu does not suffer from food shortages owing to off-farm work opportunities like tourism which have raised living standards. Kathmandu Valley has lost most of its fertile fields to urban expansion and has become a food deficit area, but its higher living standards means the capital meets its requirements by importing grain.

In cash-strapped communities like Humla, however, local food production is sufficient for only four months of the year and there are few off-farm opportunities. Despite its low population density, Humla has a chronic food deficit that affects every household. The government has established food depots at strategic points in the district, and flies rice to remote Humla villages. But these flights are affected by weather or bad logistics, and food shortages become acute as they have this month. Large portions are consumed by government employees. In some villages, the Village council has to spend its development budget of Rs 500,000 to pay for food supplies.

An ex-MP from Humla, Chhakka Bahadur Lama told us: "Since the airport was built two decades ago, the government has been adopting emergency measures flying in food. How long can it make people dependent on subsidised rations. We need alternatives, long term measures." Ironically, Humla can be a food surplus area because of its low population and fertile valley floors. But social factors, changing food habits, reliance on subsidised white rice, failure to improve local crop production, and costly transportation has turned Humla into a chronic food deficit area.

The World Food Programme funded Food for Work Project is trying to help. The project, since late last year, is supplying food in return for labour contributed to building the Simikot-Hilsa road. The project cites 300,000 beneficiaries, a food basket of 37,500 metric tons of rice, and a budget of more than $16 million. It is implemented by the Rural Community Infrastructure Works (RCIW) which has tried since 1995 to ensure food security combining support for building roads, mule racks, small-scale irrigation and bridges.

The WFP Country Programme has shifted focus to food deficit hill and mountain districts in the mid- and far-western development regions and it also operates a Food for Education programme in 12 of the grain-deficient districts. The project runs primary school feeding programmes that enables families without enough food to send children, particularly girls, to school where they are fed fortified blended food.

While these short-term measures are needed, analysts say it is much more important to increase agriculture productivity, improve access and affordability. They say indigenous crops like millet and barley should be pushed to counter declining trends and crops like potatoes, pulses and vegetables should be encouraged for their nutritional value or to enhance farmer income.

The government's proposed land ceiling and redistribution of farms to landless and subsistence farmers can improve production and nutrition levels within households. Large landowners prefer to leave their land fallow rather than grow rice-it just does make economic sense because of cheap Indian rice in the market. However, if the land belonged to small farmers they would plant paddy, since it is for their household consumption and not for sale. However, fragmentation of large holdings due to inheritance or land reform will affect productivity as food production will not have the economy of scale to make large-scale farming viable.

Says the NPC's Sharma: "It is natural for grain prices to fluctuate because of natural factors, especially in a country like Nepal where most farms are rain-fed. But Nepali farmers are at a disadvantage as the cost of production is higher here and they don't enjoy support prices like in India." There is no doubt that Nepal's price mechanism has to be made more effective, and despite Singha Durbar's assurance that it will find markets and will direct the Food Corporation to buy surplus rice from local farmers there is little chance of that happening quickly.

The Food Corporation has inadequate and decrepit food storage capacity-much grain is lost to improper stacking and pests. And even corporation insiders allege that there is a complicated and corrupt nexus that leads to serious leakage of precious grain along the supply chain.

The other perennial problem is the open border. India released its old rice stock at 30 percent lowered prices last year, and a backlog of Indian rice entered Nepal devastating last year's harvests. This trend is expected to continue this winter as well. Unclear and shifting government policies haven't helped. Some years ago, the government opened grain exports, in the hope that it would get support for a long-term agriculture plan from the Asian Development Bank. But before it could be implemented properly, the government reversed its decision, which killed exports to Bangladesh that were just getting off the ground.

Agriculture in Nepal has been support-driven rather than demand-driven. The effect of this has been magnified because the government's inefficiency in support and extension has failed to take into account the needs of Nepali farmers who make up 80 percent of the population. Example: small farmers around the country have been asking for irrigation facilities. But the irrigation department, under the Ministry of Water Resources, provides irrigation schemes for land not less than 25 hectares.

Despite government and politicians harping on the fact that agriculture is the backbone of Nepal's economy, they have over the years never followed those words with real action. The country has seen 15 agriculture ministers, eight directors and eight secretaries in the past 11 years.

Sharma shakes his head: "It's no wonder that despite being an area of mass employment and quick return, where unlike industry there is no gestation period, and we have the natural resources and skills, our agriculture lags behind."

Continuity in policy or commitment from political parties, and follow-through to make sure that policies are implemented is all that is required. It needs seriousness about governance. The ADB-backed 20-year Agriculture Perspective Plan, addresses issues of irrigation, technology, fertiliser, markets and roads, and targets a five percent growth in agricultural production, largely cereals.

In its fifth year of implementation, the plan is ambitious: it hopes to reduce poverty in the country dramatically from the present 42 percent to 14 percent. It seeks to raise current per capita agricultural income growth from 0.5 percent to 3 percent, to ensure food security by increasing the current per capita food availability from 270 kg to 426 kg, and to contribute to narrowing the gap of regional imbalance.

"Policy is one thing. Implementation is something else. The planning is superficial and more geared towards commissions," says Dharma Raj Shrestha. "The APP has a bird's eye view which doesn't encompass the majority of farmers."

A member of the Agriculture Concern Society, a pressure group of environmentalists, agricultural scientists, and foresters, Shrestha cites an example. "Farmers get a two-day milk holiday in a week. And then powder milk is imported from India."

Food experts complain that agriculture has never got the attention it deserves in Nepal, and attention has been hijacked by a sector like tourism that contributes only four percent of the GDP, but is fickle and depends on external factors.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)