FEATURE: Lessons from the pandemic – Nepal is learning to transform its agricultural sector
In Nepal, coronavirus-related lockdowns have damaged households’ food security and ability to access adequate nutrition. Thankfully, rapid adoption of new farming and gardening methods, and systems for agricultural inputs and marketing are helping people to adapt successfully and could be scaled up in the future. Aastha Bhusal and Laxman Khatri, Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (LI-BIRD), and Geeta Sandal, ICLEI South Asia report.
The COVID-19 pandemic has heavily impacted the marginal and small framers in Nepal, affecting production, marketing and food supply systems in a country. At present more than 60.4% of the population in the country depends on agriculture that contributes about 31.7% of the gross domestic product.
The disruptions in the agriculture sector, caused by the lockdown imposed to control the spread of the pandemic, have heavily impacted food consumption. These disruptions have changed people’s diets and their ability to carry out various agricultural practices.
Seasonal agricultural workers have not been able to reach the farms, leading to a shortage of labour and significantly impacting agricultural operations, such as crop procurement. This threatens to have a huge impact because of the likely delay in the harvest of winter crops.
In the meantime, farmers are scrambling to get harvesting machines, while being compelled to destroy perishable produce such as vegetables, which they are unable to sell due to restrictions on vehicle movement. Women farmers are the most affected as they have even less access to resources and agricultural extension services than men.
The impact of the pandemic on the livelihoods of individuals shows an urgent need to implement recovery measures such as restoration of input and food supplies that can reduce the stress on households and help them to overcome the emerging challenges.
Coping with COVID-19
It is of utmost importance to modify and adopt agricultural practices that can help improve the food and nutrition security of individual households. In this context, various steps have been taken in Nepal during the lockdown period. For instance, farmers are now able to sell their produce online, after receiving market information with the help of information and communication technologies (ICT).
The Government of Nepal has also taken a few measures to provide immediate relief to farmers, such as relief packages. Local governments have provided food items and other essentials to crisis-affected communities. Easing of lockdown for the agricultural sector and related work has been approved. The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development (MOALD) has delivered an agriculture development plan based on five key points: subsidy for agricultural inputs; access to low-interest loans; increased technical services support; agricultural insurance; and provision of cash to guarantee minimum savings (e.g. plans to provide cash payments of a minimum amount to every small and marginal farmer to ensure that they have savings to cushion them during the crisis). All these measures are providing some amount of relief to smallholders and women.
Adoption of good practices
Even though the pandemic has come as a shock to communities, health systems, economies and governments worldwide, it is also an opportunity to help these systems become more resilient and sustainable. A few such measures being adopted in Nepal are:
- ICT and digitalisation: Farmers have started selling their produce online with the help of ICT in Nepal. Besides providing them with safer modes to sell their produce, these technologies can also transform the food supply system in terms of marketing. Farmers’ associations and local leaders are becoming more aware of online platforms that provide information on sowing, planting, intercultural operations, harvesting and post-harvest processes. A few local and provincial governments have also launched ‘agriculture ambulances’ to help farmers transport produce from their farms to the consumers. These measures are gradually gaining acceptance, an encouraging sign in the move towards modernisation of agriculture.
- Promotion of value-added products through post-harvest technologies: Problems in the procurement and sale of milk have severely impacted milk cooperatives, farms and individual producers across Nepal. To overcome these issues, milk producers have now started making dairy products such as cheese, cottage cheese (paneer) and other items. Food preservation techniques are been adopted to reduce losses. Refrigeration, canning and pasteurisation facilities are also being used by some producers to extend the shelf-life of their products. Surplus vegetables are being used to make pickles, jams and juices, or being dried to avoid wastage. While these practices are not very common yet, the efforts being taken by farmers in Hardiya village to save their produce and sources of income are a good example for other smallholders in Nepal to follow.
- Roof-top gardening and farming by women: Health professionals increasingly recognise the value of farms and garden-scale urban agriculture. Growing of food crops in and near cities contributes to the development of healthy communities by engaging residents in work and recreation that improves individual and public well-being. Women in Nepal are getting more engaged in roof-top farming, and terrace farming for the cultivation of vegetables and other agricultural commodities. This has increased the availability of fresh and organic produce as fertilisers are not used in kitchen and roof-top gardens, thus ensuring a secure and sustainable food supply, besides improving air and land quality.
- Sourcing local food: Shortages of food items in markets have increased the popularity and importance of consuming locally sourced food. People have started searching for local seeds and varieties to cultivate them, instead of searching for improved or hybrids seeds. This is a good move towards improving the self-sufficiency of individual households and food security.
- Mechanisation: There is increasing realisation of the need to mechanise the agriculture sector, especially due to the shortage of manpower during the wheat harvest season, following restrictions on mobility. On the flip side, seasonal migrants have returned to their villages and are using land lying idle to cultivate various crops. These situations provide an opportunity to plan the methods needed to transform agricultural operations, such as mechanisation, which will bring crop diversity, increase productivity and minimise risks.
The way forward
The development of a strategic plan to engage farmers and other concerned stakeholders in Nepal will play a vital role in overcoming the crisis in the agriculture sector. More budgetary funds could be allocated for the sector to strengthen the food system and to maintain self-sufficiency in the present context. Smallholders should be aided in accessing proper marketing facilities for their produce.
There is also a need for allied policies and their implementation to ensure sufficient budget allocation, subsidies and easy access to and timely availability of inputs, easy access to finance, supply chains and assured marketing. These measures are indispensable for ensuring food security and nutritional enhancement, which should all be part of a sustainable agricultural system in Nepal. In addition, all tiers of the government as well as the concerned stakeholders should develop an agricultural value chain and financing mechanisms that can help the smallholders to access finance more easily.
Image: Nepal, courtesy UN Women