Agriculture remains the mainstay of Nepali economy, though with a declining share in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Once a significant employment provider, it has now turned into a virtually non-remunerative sector as it fails to attract able-bodied youths, who choose to migrate rather than toil here to earn a living. But despite its bleak outlook, agriculture is still important to Nepal not only in broad macroeconomic terms but also because agriculture is a way of life for a large majority of rural people. For them agriculture is a form of emotional attachment with the soil, the crops, and the surrounding agro-ecology.
It’s not that the government has not prioritized agricultural development. Agriculture has received priority in the periodic plans, especially after the eighth five-year plan. To drive accelerated growth in agriculture and to harness the benefits of comparative advantage, the government in 1995 came up with a long term plan for agriculture development.
It was the Agriculture Perspective Plan (APP), which will complete its 20 years in 2015. With the support of major donors—ADB and IFAD—the government is now preparing the APP successor, the Agriculture Development Strategy (ADS). There may be varying assessments of APP’s overall impact, but it is imperative that the new Agriculture Development Strategy (ADS) made significantly different and more progressive than the APP.
Since the APP was initiated in 1995, Nepal has witnessed significant economic, political, and environmental changes. Therefore, the new agriculture development strategy should address and respond to these changes. More specifically, it should at least address the issues of: (i) climate change, i.e. how best our agricultural production can be improved under the uncertainty of climate change impacts, (ii) the growing concern over food (in) security, (iii) massive out-flux of rural youths and able-bodied men thereby leading to labor shortages, (iv) creating an environment for agricultural commercialization—through better market infrastructure, contract enforcement, crop insurance, etc. (v) land use, and (vi) land tenure and reform.
Otherwise, over the coming decades, climate change will more and more determine the overall competitiveness of the country, and not only in agriculture. But climate change will definitely hit agriculture the hardest and countries like Nepal where food production systems are already at an alarming state will be disproportionately affected. As things stand, our agriculture system with minimal preparedness for climate change impact is destined to collapse without timely interventions. For climate change will not only affect production of staple crops but will also create spatial disparity with regard to access to food, its utilization, and stability. Nepal, with its fragile food system, is likely to bear the brunt of the inherent risks and uncertainties associated with climate change, further exacerbating the situation of net food imbalance, reinforcing disparities in food access, and resulting in food emergencies.
Yield maximization should be the major thrust of the ADS. However, against the backdrop of uncertainties associated with climate change, we need to develop a resilient production system capable of reducing risks and minimizing yield reductions during. For example, rather than choosing exotic hybrids like Monsanto we might go for crop varieties more adaptive to local agro-ecological conditions, which have the capacity to tolerate harsh conditions (like droughts and cold waves). This calls for state investment in research and development of resilient varieties, management of the production system that are under biotic and abiotic stresses, and creation of incentives and payment structures for farmers who are already into environment-friendly organic farming.
Innovations are a must to tackle effects of climate change on agriculture and and develop it as a viable career option.
The national agriculture research system which has so far been confined to the physical boundaries of Nepal Agriculture Research Council (NARC) should, for its part, step outside its comfort zone and actively pursue research and systematic documentation of indigenous knowledge and local practices.
A major concern in agriculture now is the male out-migration. The current labor-intensive agriculture with minimum prospects for mechanization (at least for some decades) will continue to see labor shortages if the current migration trend continues. How long can we rely on remittance while letting our domestic production system suffer? While the government can come up with long-term strategies to discourage migration and retain the youth force, alternatives for agriculture labor shortage will also have to be developed immediately. The negative connotations associated with men’s involvement in agriculture have to be removed and women, traditionally perceived as mere suppliers of labor to the farm, have to be seen as the drivers of agricultural growth and change.
Accordingly, the agriculture extension system has to be transformed to cater to the needs and aspirations of these women farmers. Mobilization of female extension workers, targeted loans and credit schemes for women farmers, changes in land ownerships, women-led enterprise development, and development of market institutions that respect and reward women farmers are the need of the hour.
Although APP also envisaged transforming subsistence agriculture into commercial enterprise, it didn’t result in the desired results. If we are serious about developing commercial agriculture that duly rewards poor farmers, first, the current supply-driven agriculture has to be changed to demand-driven agriculture. This will call for enhancing partnership with the private sector in planning, agricultural research and service delivery. The conventional rhetoric of state as a provider of all services has to be changed and pluralistic and inclusive approaches adopted in agriculture research and extension programs.
While the state can focus on creating market institutions like contract farming, buy-backs, and cooperative marketing, it should also adopt pluralistic approaches like extension and research. The state should also support cooperative extension and Inclusive Business models, which are the forte of the private sector. The common goal should be building capacities of producers so that they are able to meet the quality and quantity demands of the market.
Most importantly, all the stakeholders in the Agriculture Development Strategy should realize that broad-based economic growth is possible only through partnership between the government, private sector and civil society.
The writer is Producer Organization Strengthening Advisor, SNV Netherlands Development Organization