Voices from the kitchenThe onion episode tells us that we should grow our own vegetables, as we used to.
The steep and sudden rise in the price of onions last month was a huge shock for Nepali consumers. The price of the everyday vegetable reached Rs250 per kilogram, which is the highest recorded price to date. Gradually, onion prices became the subject of trolls and discussions on social media.
The media reported that India stopped exporting onions as they were running short and didn't have enough for themselves. As a result, the Nepali market was hit by scarcity and a sudden price hike. A number of news stories covered the price hike, but only a few media outlets spoke about the causes of the scarcity. Trade analysts in India speculated that floods and illegal hoarding ahead of the festival season created an onion shortage. Additionally, heavy rainfall also prevented farmers from harvesting their agricultural produce on time. Besides onions, other regular vegetables such as big tomato, cabbage, cauliflower and spinach have witnessed a dramatic price rise.
In Nepal, we depend heavily on India for many food items. The agricultural land in Nepal is being encroached by urbanisation, and we lack fertile arable land in a metropolitan city like Kathmandu, where the population density is higher than in other parts of Nepal. Conversely, land in rural Nepal is left barren with due to large-scale youth migration. Therefore, it is difficult for the ones left behind to take care of the household as well as their farms, and they end up managing only a small plot of land. Lack of access to water supply, unexpectedly prolonged droughts, and unaffordable irrigation technologies are further hindering agricultural production.
The question is what may be the consequences of the scarcity and soaring vegetable prices. Vegetables, one of the staple food items of every household, are rich in essential vitamins and minerals, and ensure good health. Thus, the lack of diverse and affordable vegetables could prevent us from getting vital nutrients. There is definitely no alternative to our daily vegetable needs unless we plan to adopt new food habits. Soaring vegetable prices could be challenging for lower-income groups since a large part of their income will be spent on their daily food requirements with little savings for their future security. In such a situation, people are likely to take smaller amounts of food or even skip meals altogether. Females are most likely to sacrifice their food for the sake of their family members. Hence, women’s health is more at risk than others in the absence of affordable and healthy foodstuff.
What can be done to improve the dire situation? The answer to this question is not so simple. Ensuring food security requires efforts at all levels. At the household level, establishing a kitchen garden in our small yards or verandas is a good option. The government and non-governmental organisations can provide training to women farmers on vegetable gardening and provide technical support when required.
What is truly necessary for the agriculture sector is the active and long-term engagement of the youth. Young people today are more eager to work abroad, where they see better prospects, than engaging in farming. Therefore, local governments and the private sector can play a significant role in attracting these youths by providing incentives and subsidies where appropriate. Further, markets for agricultural products need to be promoted. Climate-smart technologies like rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation can be adopted to improve production and also to deal with climate-related stress such as water scarcity and heavy rainfall.
Check the prices
The prices set by farmers and middlemen need to be monitored to bridge the gap between the two. Local and provincial governments can take the lead in such a monitoring process. The National Agriculture Policy 2004 has highlighted checking the fragmentation of cultivable land and ensuring its scientific management. Thus, such policies should be prioritised and implemented effectively.
Local governments can demarcate certain fertile areas as agricultural land and prevent the construction of new infrastructure in such places. The federal government can also work towards improving and updating the agriculture policy and take the lead in encouraging dialogue. Similarly, insurance policies should be improved as per the farmers’ need and feedback. The lengthy formal process that creates a barrier for farmers to receive timely insurance claims should be shortened. Farmers' groups can also establish a fund to improve their resilience and deal with agricultural loss. This is the time for us to learn lessons from our current experience, and work towards achieving affordable and nutritious food products using our own resources.
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