Back to articles
6 Jun 2023 | Organic agriculture

Exploring agroecological farming in Karnali, western Nepal

Oshin Sharma & Kundan Shrestha

10 mins Read

70% Complete
The Government of Karnali Province has ambitiously set out to gradually transform into a fully organic province. But many impediments stand in the way of the provincial government’s ambitious plan. (Alex Treadway/ICIMOD)

We met Dal Bahadur Kandel, a farmer in Sundwari village, during an ICIMOD/GRAPE team visit to Karnali Province, western Nepal, in November 2022. Kandel gave us a tour of his traditional farm, a 2,500-m2 property around his home. He showed us the different crops he was cultivating – gourds, melons, cauliflower, tomatoes – all to be sold at the local market. As he led us around, he pointed to his cattle shed, the containers in which he prepared jholmal (homemade bio-pesticide and bio-fertiliser), and the greenhouse tunnel that he had acquired through government support, where he was growing tomatoes.

Kandel was visibly concerned about the current batch of tomatoes. Very few fruits seemed to be setting. He had grave doubts about the quality of the seeds in the market, and he was unsure whether the tomato seeds he had planted this season were indeed of the variety advertised.

Farmers like Kandel across the country have to contend with adulterated seeds, poor-quality agricultural inputs, and limited access to agricultural extension services. To improve yields, farmers raise chemical inputs, but at heavy costs to the farm, soil, groundwater, the environment, and public health – and ultimately leading to rapidly diminishing returns.

A more nature-positive alternative to chemical fertilisers and imported seeds would be to cultivate agrobiodiversity by adopting agroecological practices. In fact, since 2018, the Government of Karnali Province has ambitiously set out to gradually transform into a fully organic province, guided by the Karnali Province Organic Agriculture Act (2076).But for this endeavour to be successful, organic farming practices must be scaled up to meet actual demand and made profitable for smallholder farmers. Karnali may also need to look beyond just organic – looking further to the overarching concept of agroecological farming (see the box for differences between ‘organic’ and ‘agroecological’ farming) to contend with long-term sustainability and governance. How might the province do so?

What are the differences between organic farming and agroecological farming?

In many cases, organic farming is based on an agroecological approach, with both concepts emphasising chemical input reduction, natural resource health, biodiversity and dietary diversity, and local participation. However, there are  also significant differences between these two terms. Agroecological farming is more holistic – going beyond organic farming to focus on co-creation of knowledge, land and natural resource governance, connectivity, and economic diversification.


Moving away from chemical inputs: The case of fertiliser dependency in Nepal

First, let us consider the case for moving away from chemical inputs. When used judiciously, chemical fertilisers are effective in producing higher yields by providing plants with necessary nutrients over shorter periods of time. However, their continued use disrupts the natural balance of nutrients and microbes in the soil. This leads to a diminishing capacity to support healthy plant growth in the long term.

Beyond the environmental concerns, chemical fertiliser dependence also leaves farmers vulnerable to supply and price volatility.

The introduction of new crop varieties with extended growing seasons and the increased cultivation of hybrid crops (which require more fertilisers than local varieties) have contributed to a growing demand for chemical inputs in Nepal. This overdependence means food security hangs on volatile energy prices and other global market dynamics and shifts, such sanctions and rising input costs elsewhere in the world.

Fertiliser shortages are common in Nepal every year. According to government estimation, the demand for fertilisers is about 600,000 metric tons annually, and this demand has to be largely met through imports. To manage its growing chemical fertiliser subsidy bill, the government hiked prices in March 2023. Food inflation has subsequently soared in 2023, with prices for cereal grains and rice skyrocketing.

Agroecological farming for the win
drip irrigation and jholmol
A water tank fitted to drip irrigation, and containers with jholmal (homemade bio-pesticide and bio-fertiliser) in a farm in Surkhet District, Karnali Province (Sunayana Basnet/ICIMOD)


When conventional, dominant farming systems have pushed the carrying capacity of our lands beyond the tipping point, it is only logical to explore other systems that are more sustainable, and which can be made more market efficient.

Agroecological farming is a system based on the natural functioning of ecosystems, locally available resources, traditional knowledge, and the co-creation of knowledge. This farming system supports more crop diversity, including native underutilised species, which are often better adapted to local conditions and can improve the overall resilience of the ecosystem. It is also less reliant on external inputs and more dependent on locally available resources.

For example, in Nepal, agroecological farming can substitute commercial chemical inputs and promote the natural fertility of soil by using vermicompost, trichocompost, urine- and dung-based fertilisers, green manure, oilseed cakes, biochar, crop rotation, and local herb-based pest repellents.

Agroecological practices can therefore foster the development of local food systems, which can reduce the reliance on global supply chains and increase the resilience of communities to disruptions in the food system. Agroecology also seeks to diversify on-farm income and opportunities for value addition.

Over the past century, the concept of agroecology has undergone a transformation as a multidisciplinary approach that integrates scientific knowledge, practical experience, ecological principles, and social activism. In recent years, several policies have emerged that promote the development of agroecology in different parts of the world, such as France’s ‘Agroecological Project for France’ launched in 2012 by the French Ministry of Agriculture and Food.


Winds of change

In 2003, the Government of Sikkim, India, announced the Sikkim Organic Mission to transition the state from chemical-based farming to organic agriculture. The transition was not without its snags, as crop failures were observed initially. But some effective policy manoeuvring and logistical changes helped steady the ship, and productivity started to pick up as the soil regained its natural fertility. The Sikkim state policy on organic farming outlined 13 elements addressing aspects such as value chain improvement, widespread availability of alternative fertilisers through production plants and soil test labs, and platforms for farmer–scientist interactions.

Following the economic turmoil (or the Special Period) that ensued in Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, government authorities began encouraging the adoption of agroecological practices (such as shifting from large-scale monoculture-based agriculture to small- and medium-scale agroecological farming, and high-tech machinery to animal traction) among farming communities to reverse the negative consequences of monoculture and reduce reliance on imports for agricultural inputs and food. Whether out of necessity or by choice, the country’s shift towards agroecological farming is gaining momentum. Cuba is now exporting organic products (such as honey) in world market and is a prominent figure in the agroecological movement.

Agroecological practices can be effective in meeting food and nutritional needs. Denmark introduced its Organic Action Plan (2011–2020) to completely switch to organic farming, driven by the public sector and research and product innovation; Bhutan launched its National Organic Flagship Programme in 2019; and various U.S. states, including California, Oregon, Minnesota, and Vermont, have programmes to promote organic farming. The demand for organic food is growing, and various governments especially in Europe are supporting this trend through different research and policy initiatives such as the European Green Deal.

In Nepal, Karnali Province is planning several initiatives, and its Mid-West University is primed to contribute lessons from its research on organic farming, indigenous knowledge, and sustainable modern innovations in agroecological practices.

However, many impediments stand in the way of the provincial government’s ambitious plan. The provincial planning does not address the entire socioeconomic, financial, policy and governance, cultural, and technical aspects of agroecosystem transformation. For instance, the local markets are trading smuggled fertilisers and low-quality seeds that lack quality assurance due to the absence of regulation. Rural areas such as Humla, Jumla, Dolpa, Kalikot, and Mugu have limited access to agricultural information and extension services, and their food security is always a concern due to their total reliance on rainfed subsistence farming.

Karnali Province also lacks adequate infrastructure, with the only state-run soil laboratory in Surkhet being poorly equipped and functional. There is a lack of storage facilities for agricultural products such as potato and ginger. Other obstacles include insufficient recognition and rewards for agricultural professionals, youth outmigration, and a lack of local markets with a demand for organic products.


How Nepal can promote agroecological farming

Although the shift to agroecological farming is an environmentally prudent decision, there are numerous factors to consider before a country can fully adopt an organic approach. Critics have always raised questions regarding the scaling and profitability of organic and agroecological practices. For instance, Sri Lanka’s government, amidst an economic crisis, abruptly banned agrochemical inputs in 2021 to cut expenses and labelled it as a promotion of organic farming. This sudden decision lacked a comprehensive plan and led to a massive decline in crop yield.

A well-crafted transition plan should include crucial support and guidance from the government such as financial backing during the adjustment period, monitoring and enforcement of the chemical inputs supply chain and agri-product value chain, and necessary infrastructure and technologies. Consumer awareness regarding organic products is crucial, and this requires marketing, branding, certification, and standardisation. Moreover, given the knowledge intensiveness of agroecological farming, the plan should prioritise collaboration among the government, industries, research institutes, and farmers for testing and sharing technologies and practices.

For agroecological practices to flourish in Karnali Province (and across the country), we need a comprehensive transition plan that builds on (but is not limited to) these tenets:


ICIMOD/GRAPE is working to promote agroecological farming, climate-resilient farming, and digital advisory services in Karnali and Sudurpashchim provinces. The project is knowledge-intensive and is using a ‘bundle approach’ to collect, test, and disseminate information on various technologies and techniques to 2,500 farmers through action research. This creates a horizontal learning platform that includes research institutions, farmers, universities, and youth. The action research is expected to produce knowledge products and technologies that are widely and easily accessible to farmers in specific contexts. The project aims to build the resilience of rural farmers in selected villages across 19 municipalities in the two provinces.


Green Resilient Agriculture Productive Ecosystems (GRAPE) is a project (2019–2024) implemented in Karnali and Sudurpashchim provinces of Nepal and funded by the European Union (EU), Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The project is composed of four fields of action (FAs): (1) economic governance, (2) action research, (3) roll-out, and (4) scaling. ICIMOD is taking the lead on action research (FA 2), which aims to conduct action research to foster climate-resilient food production and scale proven solutions at the municipal, provincial, and national levels through demonstration, knowledge dissemination, and engagement with policy makers.


Stay current

Stay up to date on what’s happening around the HKH with our most recent publications and find out how you can help by subscribing to our mailing list.

Sign Up
8 Oct 2021 REEECH
Decentralised renewable energy solutions for food value chains in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Renewable energy (RE) can significantly contribute to improving livelihoods and wellbeing of mountain communities by bringing efficiency to various livelihood ...

11 Aug 2021 Nepal
What can the past teach us about the future?

Experiences from documenting disaster preparedness of mountain communities in Langtang, Nepal   [caption id="attachment_35078" align="alignnone" width="924"]

14 Oct 2022 RMS
Forest commons for multiple benefits: Restoration of degraded land and revival of springs in Uttarakhand, India

Manar is a village located in Champawat, a district in the state of Uttarakhand in India. Here, over the past ...

22 Sep 2021 RMS
Building back better: Resilient tourism enterprises for responsible recovery in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Anu Kumari Lama a, Nanki Kaur a, Padmakshi Rana b, Nagakarthik MP c, Shripathi Hadigal c, Mewang Gyeltshen a and ...

22 Mar 2022 Water and air
Himalayan springs and groundwater: Making the invisible visible

For Anita Rai, the only source of drinking water is Dokung Dhara – a spring that is an hour’s ...

Yak genetic improvement through transboundary cooperation

Background The yak is an iconic species of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region, exceptionally adapted to the harsh ...