Achieving zero hungerNepal requires strategies in place to fix the potholes, and support enhancing production-based food systems.
The Nepal government has committed to ending all forms of hunger and malnutrition, along with the rest of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), by the year 2030. It means that by 2030, everyone, including children and vulnerable communities, will have access to sufficient and nutritious food all year round. Meeting SDG 2—the eradication of hunger—also implies that sustainable agriculture practices will be promoted, and agricultural productivity and small-scale food producers’ incomes will double. The Government of Nepal’s roadmap has identified several targets, but the most prominent of them is increasing per capita food grain production by 65 percent (320 kg of 2015 to 530 kg in 2030).
Given the climate-related uncertainty that the agriculture sector entails, it is hard to imagine how the intended goals will be achieved. If successive weather events since March this year are anything to go by, a worrying situation seems to be unfolding for Nepal’s agriculture. The tornado in March this year, a first for Nepal, destroyed maize, lentil, wheat, fruits and vegetables in Bara and Parsa districts in central Nepal. Another wind storm in June destroyed seasonal crops in Kailali, Kanchanpur area in the far-west. Droughts in August destroyed maize and other staple crops in Panchthar and Terhathum in the east. A hailstorm destroyed ready-to-harvest paddy in Myagdi in October. To add to this growing list of problems came the Armyworm, which caused extensive damage to maize in the eastern hills in August and paddy in the western Tarai in October. These are some signature climate-related events affecting agriculture production that hit the headlines this year. The amount of food lost to these events will never be known.
Our domestic food production has increasingly become insufficient to meet our requirements, leaving us with no option but to import food to feed the population. Importing food is not always possible and, therefore, will not be helpful in the long term. We have repeatedly experienced hurdles in importing food items. The year 2008 was one of the global food crisis caused by price rise and several other factors. 29 countries, including India, restricted food exports to ensure their domestic supply was not affected. When India banned the export of rice, except Basmati, following the global crisis in March 2008, it caused food shortages in Nepal. In order to address the problem, while visiting India on an official visit in September that year, then prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal requested the Government of India to provide concessions, to which India responded by revoking the ban on the export of rice, wheat, maize and sugar to Nepal for agreed quantities.
Given the short supply and the rising price of onions, the Indian government recently prohibited the export of onions, which affected the Nepali market. The cost of onions increased about threefold in as many weeks during Dashain. It is a reminder of how vulnerable an import-based food system can be. Unlike the ban on the export of rice in 2008, which was primarily due to higher demand, rise in oil prices and droughts, the prohibition on export of onions this time is due to excessive and untimely rains that destroyed crops. The scenarios are likely to repeat more frequently with climate change.
The onion crisis has reminded us, once again, that there is no alternative to local production. However, the state of the local output doesn’t seem to be highly promising; that a rising number of youths have opted for foreign employment in labour markets abroad is a testimony to the fact that farming has become increasingly unexciting. Large swaths of farms have turned into shrubs and forest lands after farmers abandoned them when they found labour markets to be more profitable than farming. The exodus of farmers for employment abroad has taken place at the cost of food production. There are some who view this as beneficial because of the forest coverage that have been recovered as a result. From the perspective of food production, however, it is an utter failure of our policies, which should have assured farmers that their contribution to food production was more valuable. Planners should have taken steps to ensure that the farmers continued farming. Unfortunately, when a farmer is faced with the sequence of weather-related events such as those of this year, anyone would be convinced to look for alternatives. It is, thus, not surprising that the amount spent on food import in Nepal has increased fivefold since 2009.
Towards sustainable food production
Nepal’s domestic food production will continue to dwindle as more farms get abandoned. Regrettably, the state of these farms is unlikely to change soon. There’s no space to increase agricultural holdings. Neither do we have the luxury of venturing into off-shore production that some countries have. The fact remains: when it comes to food, there is no compromising. Two square meals a day is a must for every family. Expanding markets and transport networks make food produced by someone, somewhere, available to us, at a cost. But the fact we must face, a serious one at that, is even with money earned as remittance, it may not be possible to continue importing food when reasons beyond our control disrupt imports.
Our agriculture plans do emphasise the need for large irrigation, better roads, extension services, access to finance, and provisioning of inputs like seeds and fertilizers for agriculture to take-off. What is missing in the plan, perhaps, is the runway—the biophysical component comprising land, water, and its surrounding. A runway mired with potholes and puddles in the form of erosion, soil degradation, declining water sources, insect pests, diseases, floods, and droughts have continuously slowed down the speed our economy needed to take-off. Without fixing the potholes and puddles, which are further exacerbated by climate change, it will be challenging to achieve sustainable domestic production for decades to come.
Climate change debate primarily focuses on mitigation; how it has affected food production hasn’t yet received the attention it needs. Emphasis only on mitigation so far has obfuscated the problem that has increasingly affected food production and, subsequently, the food price, disproportionately hurting low-income people. Achieving SDG 2 realistically requires plans and strategies in place to fix the potholes and support enhancing production-based food system. One way to begin fixing the system is to implement an effective and cost-efficient approach of nature-based solutions, such as micro-watershed management, which Nepal has some experience implementing on a small scale, but on a larger scale.
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