Nepal’s agriculture sector is not developing satisfactorily as billions of rupees are being spent to import food. Farmers here are facing shortage of agricultural inputs, including fertilisers. However, the country has now adopted agro-technology which is contributing to increased production and reduction in production cost. The country which has become self-reliant in eggs and meat is now trying to be self-reliant in cereals. Against this backdrop, Laxman Kafle of The Rising Nepal recently talked to Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development Dr. Yogendra Kumar Karki on various issues of Nepal’s agriculture sector. Excerpts:
The agriculture sector does not seem to have developed as per it is given priority. Why?
Of course, development of the agricultural sector was slow. However, in the last few years, it has gained some momentum. Lack of availability of resources, physical infrastructures, poor agricultural road connectivity, inadequate cold storage facilities and growing fragmentation of land are hindering its development. Just looking at the supply condition of fertilisers and import of rice, we argue that agriculture has not developed, totally ignoring the qualitative development we have made in the sector in recent years. More youth are attracted toward commercial farming of vegetable, livestock, which we can easily notice when we visit areas near the Kathmandu Valley. Our agricultural sector is gradually transforming towards commercialisation from subsistence farming. Traditional agricultural system based on spade, plow and oxen is being gradually replaced with modern tools. Small and fragmented land holdings, subsistence nature of agriculture and poor infrastructure have been major reasons for the slow pace of mechanisation and modernisation of agriculture in Nepal. So, we have to use appropriate tools based on nature and size of area.
What kinds of policy and programmes has the government adopted for the development of agriculture sector?
The government has placed priority to modernise and commercialise agriculture so as to become self-reliant in agro products. The aim is to bring a timely change in the mode of traditional farming being practiced for subsistence. As agriculture sector is still he mainstay of Nepali economy, the focus should be to mechanise tilling, weeding and harvesting and to expand market infrastructure. Various programmes such as agricultural development strategy monitoring and coordination, special agricultural production programme, seed promotion and quality control programme, plant quarantine and pesticide management programme, livestock resource management programme and agricultural research programme have been introduced. To expend the cultivation area, mission programmes for fishery, walnut, lemon, onion and apple are in operation. We are also focusing on the promotion of comparative advantage products to minimise the widening trade deficit. The government is also providing loan at subsidised interest rate for farmers.
It has been almost seven months since you took charge as the Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture. What are the significant works done in seven months?
There have been some remarkable achievements in the field of agriculture in the last few months. We have developed a digital soil map for the first time aiming to support soil fertility management in the country. Nepal became first in South Asia to develop nationwide digital soil map. Nepal became self-reliant in eggs, meat and powder milk this year and we are working relentlessly to become self-reliant in milk and food crops. National Dairy Development Policy, 2078 was approved, National Agriculture Policy, 2061 BS is being amended and National Livestock Breeding Policy, Animal Health Policy and Fisheries Policy are also being prepared. Similarly, protocol for export of oranges to China has been prepared and application for Geographical Indication (GI) of Basmati rice has been submitted to the European Union with evidence. The agriculture and livestock insurance programme has been given continuity and expanded up to the farmers. Work has also begun to prepare provincial agriculture development strategy. And these all happened during my tenure.
Nepal is an agrarian country. But billions of rupees are being spent to import agricultural products, especially rice. Why?
It is an irony that an agrarian country like Nepal is importing agricultural products spending billions of rupees. Rising production cost and inability to compete with Indian rice have led to an increase in rice imports due to unwillingness of farmers to increase investment in paddy farming and the increasing tendency to keep the land barren. Rice eating habit is also the main reason for the rising rice imports. People not only of the urban areas but also of the hilly and mountain regions tend to consume imported fine rice. The purchasing power of people has increased because of increasing inflow of remittance or economic activities in the rural areas which is a positive aspect for national economy. But these same have led to an increase in rice import. At present, Nepal enjoys food surplus status. As of today's statistics, around 11.6 million tonnes of cereals, including paddy, wheat, maize, millet, barley and buckwheat are being produced annually. Based on the cereals production and national requirement, Nepal has a food surplus as annual requirement of food is 9.6 million tonnes. The present production of cereals is sufficient to meet the national requirement if we develop eating balanced food. Import of cereals, paddy and wheat has been increasing to feed the livestock as well.
Nepal is declared self-reliant in eggs and meat, powdered milk and butter. And the government has targeted to become self-reliant in food grains, especially rice in next five years. Is it possible to achieve this?
Yes, Nepal can be self-sufficient in paddy and other agricultural products in a near future. But we have to focus on mechanisation and using barren land properly. Experts are saying that Nepal can be self-reliant in rice within three years. At present, around 5.621 million tonnes of paddy is being produced annually from 1.4 million hectares of land. There is a deficit of only 900,000 tonnes of paddy to meet the national demand. We can meet the national requirement if per hectare productivity is increased to 4 tonnes from existing 3.81 tonnes. The government is promoting paddy farming by developing blocks, pockets, zones and superzones. We are also promoting the plantation of chaite paddy whose productivity is higher than normal paddy.
Fertiliser shortage is a perennial problem. How can we solve this problem?
Fertiliser is essential for good agricultural productivity. But farmers face an acute shortage of chemical fertilisers every year. The supply of chemical fertilsiers is improved this year. There is no shortage of fertilisers this year as around 50,000 tonnes fertiliser is in stock at present. However, we are still unable to supply required quantity of fertilisers as per the national demand. We are working to ensure availability of fertilisers making short, medium and long-term strategies. Arrangements have been made for the import of fertilisers through international bidding. The government has already started a system to purchase fertilsiers through government-to-government model. Under this, we had imported around 50,000 tonnes of fertilsiers from Bangladesh. At the same time, an agreement for importing fertilisers from India through the same method for five years has reached the final stage. Similarly, the government has opened a door for fertiliser import through the northern border. The government is preparing to set up a chemical fertiliser factory in Nepal. The government has also given priority to the construction of warehouses in the provinces for the storage of chemical fertilisers.
Consumers have been compelled to pay more price for vegetables while farmers are not getting reasonable price due to layers of middlemen. Does the government have any plan to discourage the presence of the middlemen?
Definitely, multiple layers of middlemen are a challenge to effective marketing of agricultural goods. It is true that consumers have been compelled to pay more prices for vegetables due to profit margin based on layers of middlemen. The government has tried its best to reduce the middleman's level. We have emphasised establishment of collection centres, establishment and operation of collection centers through cooperatives, arrangement of cold storages and operation of weekly (haat) bazaars in different places.
How will the government addresses the problems of the farmers affected by recent floods and landslides?
The Ministry has arranged budget to provide relief to the farmers who faced losses due to natural disaster. The government is making arrangement to provide seeds, fertilisers for next crop and also planning to provide budget to clean sand and mud piled in the fertile land.
Finally, do you have anything to add?
Agriculture sector is becoming dignified, respected and profitable over the years. And the government has been offering various schemes and facilities, including concessional loans, subsidies to the farmers. So, I want to request all the farmers to utilise government’s facilities and engage in commercial farming. As there is a huge potential in agriculture for earning and job creation, I want to urge youth to engage in agriculture instead of going abroad for jobs.