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30 Jul 2019 | Livelihoods

Our biodiversity, our food, our health

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Surma Dauli rural municipality in Bajhang. (Photo: Lipy Adhikari/ICIMOD)

Agricultural biodiversity is essential to ensuring food security, nutrition, and human wellbeing. The diversity in crops and livestock seen today is the result of thousands of years of human intervention. Agrobiodiversity is integral to making farming systems more stable, prosperous, and sustainable.

Nepal is an agriculture-dependent country. The livelihoods of a majority of the population rely on agriculture. Almost 66 percent of the population engage in farm activities (FAO), and agriculture contributes about 27.6 percent to the gross domestic product (Economic Survey 2017/18, Ministry of Finance, GoN). Although small, Nepal has always been rich in agrobiodiversity. Farming is generally integrated with livestock rearing and most farming systems are still subsistence-based.

The geography of Nepal is such that most of its lands comprise hilly and mountainous terrain. Only 17 percent of the total area comprise the plains.

Agriculture has always been prioritized by the government of Nepal. The first agriculture development plan was initiated in 1975 with the Agriculture Development Act. Many other acts and polices followed, the latest one being the Agriculture Development Strategy 2015–2035 AD. One common approach unifies all these plans/policies, which is the focus on a competitive market, the diversification of agricultural products, and promotion of agriculture commercialization.

Despite government efforts, farmers are losing interest in growing cereal crops and traditional mountain crops. The farmers of far-west Nepal say that high production costs, low productivity, wildlife encroachment, lack of readily available technical knowhow, absence of agricultural product diversification opportunities, and shortage of agricultural labour due to the rise in emigration are some reasons.

Agriculture in western Nepal

Almost 76 percent of the agricultural land in Nepal is rain-fed and highly vulnerable to weather conditions. According to the farmers of Baitadi and Bajhang, changing climatic conditions, such as untimely or intense rainfall, sudden hailstorm, and drought are leading to growing uncertainties. Locals say these climatic uncertainties are responsible for increasing abandonment of agricultural land as well as growing seasonal or permanent migration to India. Crop depredation by wildlife is another demotivating factor, and agricultural productivity is on the decline.

Both Bajhang and Baitadi are remote districts and are food deficit most months of the year. Production includes wheat, paddy, and corn, which, on average, can sustain a family for 2–3 months. Food for the remaining months needs to be purchased at the market.

Access to the road network has surprisingly led to decreased agricultural activity in some villages in these districts. Farmers say that when villages had no access to roads, people were compelled to grow their own crops as it was almost impossible for them to access food from the market. People raised a variety of crops, including traditional cereals like buckwheat, millet, and barley. However, with improved access to road, people rely more on a market supply of cereal crops and vegetables, and younger locals are not enthusiastic about working the fields.

One area where some development has taken place is vegetable farming. Good market demand, fast returns, and the comparatively low impact of wildlife have driven most farmers to replace cereal crops with vegetables.

Since both government and non-government bodies see profit in off-season vegetable farming, concerned agencies provide technical assistance to farmers who are willing to invest in it, providing high quality seeds, assisting them in constructing poly-houses, and linking them with nearby markets.

In Bajhang, Nawaraj Joshi has been farming vegetables commercially for decades. Today, he earns NPR 100,000 annually from his farm, and has been conferred a ‘best farmer’ award by the President of Nepal. In Baitadi, Maniram Pant has taken up vegetable farming more recently, but is already reaping the benefits. Vegetable farmers in these districts earn around NPR 40,000–50,000 annually.

Challenges and concerns

Farming is sustainable only when productivity is raised and production costs lowered. Most farmers in the far western districts of Nepal see their future in off-season vegetables and seed production. Vegetable farming has not only restored their faith in agriculture, it has provided them a good livelihood source.

However, certain issues remain. While vegetable farming has proved to be profitable for most farmers, it is also true that when mountain farmers switch to high yielding cash crops, dozens and sometimes hundreds of varieties of traditional crop varieties and landraces are replaced with one or two high yielding varieties causing huge ecological impact and genetic erosion. Abandoning such crops means losing agrobiodiversity, which negatively impacts on health and nutrition. In western Nepal, the replacement of finger millet with rice as a staple grain, for instance, has resulted in serious health implications.

Traditional farming systems in most mountain countries are based on multiple cropping patterns. A complete shift from this practice in some villages can lead to negative impact and make local communities climate-vulnerable and food-insecure. Therefore, a balanced approach is needed to combat such challenges.

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