19-25 April 2013 #652

Seeds of revolution

Nepal’s farmers have nurtured a rich seed biodiversity that is now threatened by industrial agriculture
Ben Ayers
Bhutan recently declared that it would convert entirely to organic agriculture, Nepal should do the same to preserve its organic heritage. Current efforts to increase crop production and income for Nepali farmers have been driven entirely by external forces and funded by the development industry. This has the potential to threaten Nepal’s sovereignty and agro-biodiversity, discourage innovation, and to place the soils and rivers at risk.

In ‘modern’ agriculture, profits are concentrated in the hands of multinational corporations, finance institutions, and equipment manufacturers. This has had fatal consequences for farmers. An estimated 250,000 farmers in India have committed suicide in the past 16 years: the largest recorded wave of suicides in human history caused by farmers being trapped in a debt cycle because of industrialised agriculture.

Millions of terraces in Nepal that are planted with local varieties are themselves a living seed bank. This is a crucial component of global food security that has taken farmers centuries of close attention to cultivate. Should the current prohibition on the use of GM crops fall, natural cross-pollination has the potential to contaminate and effectively eradicate Nepal’s biodiversity in only a matter of seasons.

Walk a few hours from the nearest road and you see farmers practicing inter-cropping, crop rotation, and planting dozens of different local varieties of rice and millet. There is a deep wisdom here and a base of refined local knowledge that has allowed villagers in Nepal’s rugged mountains to sustain themselves.

Across the ‘developed’ world, organic food is largely consumed by the wealthy. In Nepal the poorest citizens in remote communities consume organic food exclusively. The massive cost of transporting fertiliser and chemicals has the side benefit that the poor in Nepal are already feeding themselves healthy food. While the government and donors must make strides to help the poor grow more food more efficiently, this should not be done at the expense of health.

Reliance on imported fertilisers and chemicals erodes Nepal’s sovereignty and removes another critical link in the food system from the hands of farmers and citizens. Fertiliser shortages last year led to widespread protests and this trend will continue as political instability further disrupts the supply chain.

Organic farming can feed everyone in Nepal. It is in fact the only way the world has been fed until now. The world records for rice and potato production per hectare were broken last year by farmers in Bihar, India – utilising only new System for Rice Intensification (SRI) techniques and farmyard manure. Methods like these have proven that low crop yields are not due to a lack of chemicals, but rather to a lack of resourcefulness and creativity.

Farmers at Everything Organic Nursery in Kavre have developed a new organic method for bed preparation vegetable that has shown potential to produce yields nearly six times that of traditional methods. Researchers at Nepal’s Institute of Agriculture and Animal Science have also recently proven that utilising mixtures of human urine and compost on vegetable crops can significantly outperform chemical fertilisers.

On a recent trip to Khotang, I met farmers who had just banned the use of all chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Neighbouring villages had seen falling crop yields in recent years, despite the increased use of fertilisers, and also said that organic food simply tasted better.

The government can start by rewarding local efforts such as these, providing support to the most remote communities, and then building outward until entire districts and regions become fully organic. This will ease the process of certification for farmers and open doors for lucrative markets for organic goods.

An organic Nepal will be healthier, less dependent on imports from other countries, and more prosperous. The country’s subsistence farmers are some of the best agriculturalists on earth and they are perfectly positioned to use their expertise and ingenuity to lead a new green revolution.

Ben Ayers is Nepal Country Director for the dZi Foundation.

Read also:

Seeing green

See also:

Sharing what she knows

Nepal's hunger solution

Growing much more rice

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