Every Sunday and Wednesday morning, a group of vegetable farmers from Dadhikot village outside Bhaktapur wait for a pick-up van from neighbouring Thimi to collect their vegetables. The van carries the crisp, dewy-fresh vegetables to the bi-weekly organic vegetable market at Hotel Summit in Lalitpur, where organic vegetable connoisseurs can choose from the produce-broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, lettuce, coriander, fennel, kale, and arugula.
Kathmandu Valley is traditionally renowned for the veggies grown on its fertile soil. And this time of year is a productive period. The Summit market sells 30 different varieties of fruits and vegetables worth Rs 5,000 a week. This doesn't seem like an awful lot of business, and in fact it isn't. Explains Dadhikot farmer Bishnu Batas: "Here's the irony. Since a large number of our buyers-80 percent, in fact-are expatriates, during our peak productivity season they are mostly out of town on holiday. When they return, there's less variety to choose from."
The informal network of organic buyers and sellers came about after the cooperative the farmers were part of collapsed when the international organisation backing them backed out. The income from lean periods are set aside for purchase of seeds, and upkeep of farms rather than providing sustenance to the families of these small farmers. The Summit market is where you find home-made pickles, rye from Lo Manthang, wild bee honey, Japanese Mochi rice grown in Gorkha, organic tea from Panchthar and fruits like kiwi and strawberry from Kakani.
"But then during the dry seasons-May through July-we do business worth Rs 20,000 in about two hours," says Batas. Farmers say sales could be relatively consistent and dependable throughout the year if there were better storage facilities. But even greater help would be Nepalis waking up to the ill effects of eating vegetables soaked in chemical pesticide, herbicide, vermicide and other hazardous agro-chemicals.
For the moment, the reason is economic. Organic vegetables at the Lalitpur market cost nearly 20 percent more than the normal market price. But Batas says: "If people buy organic as much as possible, farmers will produce more. An increase in production will lead to a decrease in price." Organic vegetables and fruits cost more to grow, and the yield is less. The Ministry of Agriculture is waking up to the potential of organic farming and organic products are not subject to VAT or sales tax.
The six-year-old Thankot Organic Farm was the first organised attempt at commercial organic farming, but it has since given up trying to be 100 percent organic. "Either I had to run at a loss, or expand my business. I was forced to switch to using some non-organic methods of farming," admits Dharma Das Amatya, a school headmaster who turned to farming 20 years ago. But Dharma Das says he has not given up on trying to run an organic farm. He is trying to cut down on chemical inputs by expanding a bio-gas plant and avoiding the use of artificial colours and preservatives in products like jam, juices and candy. Thankot Organic Farm is the only manufacturer of home-made blackberry jam in Nepal produced from a very small processing unit. The products are marketed through a shop in Pulchowk.
Vijay Shrestha, Programme Manager of the Agriculture Enterprise Centre of the Federation of Nepali Chamber of Commerce thinks Nepal has the potential to export quality organic fruits and vegetables. "The demand and supply will gain momentum once things start coming out in the market, and there will definitely be demand for quality organically-grown products," he says.
The Kangchenjunga Tea Estate at Ranitar in Panchthar in eastern Nepal is another fine example of an organic agriculture enterprise that is booming. It is one of the first Nepali organic agricultural enterprises to achieve the EU standard 'Organic' certificate in 1997 from the National Association of Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA). It got the recognition after two years of inspection and tests on its product, and is the first Nepali cooperative tea estate, started by local farmers in 1984. More than 100 farmers are members and have put together their small holdings into a plantation totalling 90 hectares. "Our basic aim is to improve the living standard of farmers in a remote village and give them a common aim of practising organic agriculture," says LP Rai the General Manager of KTE. Besides encouraging the farmers in tea plantation, the KTE is also promoting organic agriculture for other crops used in daily life of the farmers.
"We practice organic agriculture using locally available farm yard manure and traditional pest management system," says Rai. Apart from direct employment for farmers, it also takes on contract labour during the plucking season. KTE produced 30 tons of black and green tea in 2000, and expects a gradual increase in production by 25 percent every year till 2005. At present, it exports 95 percent of its production to Europe and Japan, and the organic tea bags are gaining popularity among tea connoisseurs in Nepal as well.
The advantage of doing organic agriculture is that it runs completely on local resources. Organic farming uses green manure, cow dung, chicken manure, ash, mustard cake, bone mill and compost made from the biological waste. "It only requires about 10 minutes of work in an organic farm after everything's been set," says Batas. There are now seven organic farms in Nepal. But, as with the Thankot farm, many are finding it difficult to remain purely organic. In Dadhikot, 33 farmers are still accredited to the grower's collective, but there is a problem with selling the product. "Others are also interested but since there is no market, we cannot include everyone in the group," says Kancha Prajapati from Dadhikot.
After a good early start, therefore, organic farming in Nepal is in crisis. Farmers are tempted by higher returns using chemicals, and feel the higher price of organic products does not offset the lower yield. And a buying public unaware of the dangers of chemicals does not demand their product.
So, the indiscriminate use of chemicals goes on, and our investigation showed callous use of Dirty Dozen agrochemicals banned in most other parts of the world. Tomatoes are dipped in diluted DDT, cauliflowers are sprayed with a pesticide cocktail the day before they are plucked, and chemicals like Aldene and Metacid are regularly used. A recent report issued by the Cancer Relief society has shown that cancer rate in Kathmandu has raised the alarm about carcinogenic risk posed by chemicals in vegetables and fruits.
Says Batas: "Our forefathers were healthy because they ate healthy organic foods." He is right, but until there is greater awareness and it makes economic sense to grow organic foods, Nepal's nascent organic food industry will remain just that: nascent.