Raising yields on existing farmland is the only way forward for high and sustainable agricultural growth
High and sustainable agricultural growth is critical to ensure food and nutrition security in a country like Nepal. At present, Nepal is importing both cereals and high-value agriculture commodities due to slow agricultural growth. The 10-year average of agriculture growth from 2004 to 2014 was 3.2 percent. The growth rates thereafter are also showing more or less the same pattern. The nine percent increase in rice production this year is due to favorable monsoon and it might not be sustained in the years to come. This type of growth pattern will not bring self-sufficiency in food.
Farming in Nepal is less science-based and more traditional. In most parts of the country, use of traditional practices is common and adoption of science-based technology is rare. Even after implementation of Prime Minister’s Agriculture Modernization Project, there is no improvement in modern technology use. The average farm size has shrunk from 1.1 hectares in 1995 to 0.5 hectares, often too small to generate income above the poverty line.
Agriculture is facing multiple challenges and these challenges will be more serious over the coming decades. Climate change is bringing higher average temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns, and more frequent extreme events, multiplying the threats to sustainable agriculture growth. Addressing these challenges requires coordinated responses from both the public and private sectors.
Furthermore, population pressures and low incomes are forcing poor farmers to cultivate land that is not suitable for agriculture. Today’s basic needs of survival are forcing them to sacrifice tomorrow’s ecological sustainability. Some good agriculture practices such as crop diversification, crop rotation and mulching, organic recycling and soil-water conservation have not been followed properly.
There is little room for expansion of arable land. Raising yields on existing farmland is the only way forward for high and sustainable agricultural growth. However, the large yield gap between potential yield and actual yield for major crops indicates that we can have significant yield increases with the use of balanced inputs and appropriate technologies in production. There have been significant improvements in agricultural infrastructures in the recent years. Recent spread of mobile phones has opened up opportunities for effective and speedy market information system. Under such favorable situation, it is not difficult to increase and maintain an agricultural growth rate of five percent. But some measures must be taken.
Measures for reforms
For one, there is a need of paradigm shift to the approach of agriculture production which involves combining traditional wisdom and experiences with modern technology. In order to make the agriculture growth progressive sustainably, the production approach should be acceptable, adoptable, profitable and environment-friendly. It should give less emphasis on non-renewable and external resources. Instead, greater reliance should be on renewable resources, improved crop varieties of open pollinated types, irrigation water availability and management, soil management and crop diversification.
In Nepal, crop production is still constrained by too little application of manures and fertilizers. According to FAO, the average rate of fertilizers use was 24.5 kg per hectare during the period of 2002 to 2015. This rate is the lowest as compared with the neighboring countries. For example, the rates of fertilizers use in China and Bangladesh are about 500 kg and 300 kg per hectare respectively.
Second, fertile soils with good physical properties to support root growth are essential for sustainable agriculture. Continuous cropping and inadequate replacement of nutrients removed in harvested materials or lost through erosion, leaching or gaseous emissions deplete fertility and cause soil organic matter levels to decline, often to half or less of original levels. Erosion is severe on steep slopes where windbreaks have been cleared, and vegetative cover is absent during the rainy season. Under such conditions, judicious application of manures and fertilizers is essential.
Third, sustainable agricultural production also requires efficient irrigation. Many countries will soon fail to have adequate water to irrigate their crops but Nepal will not have this problem at least for the coming 50 years or more as we have plenty of water resources. Nepal’s challenge lies on how to tap the wasted water for irrigation. Technologies such as drip and pivot irrigation can improve water-use efficiency. These irrigation technologies have already been introduced in Nepal. They need to be scaled up.
So far, only 54 percent of the total cultivated land is irrigated seasonally. The percentage of all-the-year round irrigated area is below 25. Mostly, crop production increases in Nepal when monsoon rain is adequate and well distributed. In fact, our agriculture is heavily dependent on rainfall. Rice production increased this year due to adequate and timely rainfall in rice growing areas. But we cannot rely on rain all the time. To make the production system reliable, the future programs of crop production, especially rice production, should concentrate on making availability of irrigation water as needed. Addressing the problems related to management of weeds, crop diseases and pests and herbivores are equally important.
Other technologies such as no-till farming, drought-tolerant crops, and integrated soil management help a lot. Nitrogen-use efficiency could increase rice crop yields by 22 percent, but irrigation increases the yields by another 21 percent. Seed quality is a crucial determining factor of yield and quality of crop production. Developing hybrid seed varieties that adapt to unfavorable climatic conditions and are resistant to a range of pests and diseases can go a long way in raising crop yield. Use of high yielding varieties of rice, corn, and vegetables is essential for enhancing crop yield.
If the government really wants to achieve the targets of doubling agricultural produce through sustainable growth, ministries of agriculture, land management and irrigation should first be integrated without any delay. The existing knowledge support system should be strengthened. The present day agriculture demands innovative minds. Thus we need to train the existing officials for this. Youth should be attracted to commercial agriculture. It also needs adequate investment from public and private sectors. Though agriculture budget has significantly increased in the recent years, it is more focused on recurrent expenditure and investment in capital formation is negligible. Unless investment is increased in capital formation, agriculture growth cannot be increased in a sustainable way.