Food Security, Livelihood, and Nepalese Agriculture: Challenges and Potentials

Kalidas Subedi, CFFN, Ottawa, Canada
and Bishnu K. Dhital, Sustainabile Soil Management, Nepal

Proceedings of Unfolding Futures: Nepalese Economy, Society, and Politics
Friday-Sunday, Octobet 5-7, 2007, Ottawa, Canada


Agriculture is the backbone of Nepalese economy, and serves as the basis of livelihood and subsistence for the majority of its people. Despite its importance, the agricultural sector faces several challenges and limitations when it comes to meeting the demands of its growing population. This paper analyses the biophysical and socio-economic conditions of Nepal’s agricultural sector, food security, livelihood issues, environmental sustainability, and opportunities for improvement. It is a matter of great concern that in a predominantly agricultural country, 43 districts out of 75 (especially in the hills and mountains) are food-deficient. Food production and distribution are highly skewed. Subsistence farming, fragmented/small-sized farms, poor technical know-how, land degradation, and erratic climatic events (e.g. floods, droughts, water limitation) are the key factors that lead to low agricultural productivity. The key factors causing food insecurity, especially in remote mountain districts, are an increasing population, remoteness (causing lack of transportation and distribution), low income-generating opportunities, and lack of access to food. On the other hand, rapid urbanization, indiscriminate use of agro-chemicals, and poor technological know-how has led to environmental problems such as chemical contamination, soil/air/water pollution, and land degradation. There is definite potential for improvement when it comes to agricultural productivity and environmental sustainability in Nepal. However, effort and resources must focus on priority programs such as land consolidation, crop diversification, soil and water conservation practices, infrastructure development (e.g. using the country’s vast water resources for irrigation), rural electrification and roads, and capacity building for farmers (i.e. through training, education, and pro-poor agricultural research and extension). Nonetheless, the rate of population growth must be checked in order to maintain the carrying capacity of the country.Introduction

Nepal is a predominantly agricultural country. The agricultural sector comprises over 80% of employment and contributes 43% to the gross domestic product (GDP). However, the subsistence nature of agriculture cannot meet the growing food requirements of Nepal’s exploding population. This is illustrated by the fact that while Nepal’s population growth is one of the fastest in South Asia, its agricultural productivity is relatively stagnant. For example, between 1961 and 1999 paddy yields in Nepal grew at an annual average rate of 0.6 percent, compared with 1.41, 1.43, 1.79 and 1.97 percent respectively in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan (FAO-UNDP, 2003). Nepal is therefore, increasingly food-deficient. Several socio-economical and biophysical factors contribute to Nepal’s low agricultural productivity and food insecurity. This paper briefly outlines characteristics of Nepalese agriculture, including the food security situation and its causes, factors associated with low or declining agricultural production, agro-environmental issues, and the prospects for improved productivity, sustainability, and meeting growing food demands.What is Food Security?

Food security is when people have access to the food that meets their daily caloric and nutritional requirements. Like education, health, and public security, food security is a fundamental right and government responsibility (Subedi and KC, 2001). Food security can be expressed at the global, regional, national, and local level (Figure 1). However, for the general public, food security at levels higher than the household is meaningless. Additionally, all members of the household, including women, children, and the elderly, must have access to food in a perfectly food secure situation.

Figure 1: Example of food security at various levels.

Food Security Situation in Nepal

Food security in Nepal depends on land productivity as managed by small holders who face challenges in productivity and sustainability, and the country is prone to natural disasters that can have serious consequences for agricultural production. The World Food Programme (WFP) of the United Nations conducted a Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis (CFSVA) in 2005 in order to understand the food insecurity and vulnerability situation in Nepal. A total of 1676 households represented agro-ecological regions of Nepal (Terai, Hills, and Mountains) across all five Development Regions. The study revealed that approximately 27% of rural households are food insecure and have a very poor food consumption pattern. Chronic malnutrition and low weights are common; 49% of children aged 0-59 months are underweight and 46% are stunted. Among the Far-Western and mid-Western Regions of the country contain the highest concentration of households with poor or very poor food consumption patterns. Additionally, the households that are most likely to be food insecure tended to engage in livelihood activities such as petty trade, unskilled labour, natural resources exploitation, handicrafts, and farming. Nepal has become a net importer of grain in recent years. A recent FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission conducted in March-April 2007 confirmed earlier estimates that many people living in remote areas are chronically food insecure.

Agricultural Productivity

The productivity of major cereal crops in Nepal is either stagnant or slight even though previous efforts have been made to increase agricultural production (Figure 2). Moreover, there are wide production fluctuations a result of erratic weather patterns such as droughts or flooding, pest epidemics, and a lack of input supplies such as fertilizers and improved seeds.
Figure 2.Productivity trend of major cereal crops in Nepal from 1975 to 2004. (Source: Central bureau of Statistics, 2005).

Figure 3 shows the population growth, food production, and food balance trends in Nepal. Agriculture will be unable to meet food demands if the population grows at the present rate. The availability of agricultural to expand crop production is already beyond its carrying capacity, so the country is not in a position to meet its food demand and there is an overall food deficit. Nevertheless, even if the country produces sufficient food (i.e. mostly in the Terai and plain areas) the majority of the Hill and Mountain districts are food insecure as a result of poor distribution and purchasing power of the remote, interior-residing poor.

Figure 3. Population growth, food production, and food balance trends in Nepal during 1961-2006. Source Central Bureau of Statistics Nepal.

Characteristics of Nepalese Agriculture
Nepalese agriculture is characterised by the following biophysical and socioeconomic characteristics:

Bio-physical Characteristics

Agro-ecologically, Nepalese agriculture is characterized by a diverse altitude range (100-3000 m) representing tropical to sub-temperate zones. Depending on the altitude, aspect, and water availability, 1-3 crops can be grown in one year. Land is characterized by steep slopes, shallow soils, fragmented land holdings, and (predominately) unirrigated dry land. Rainfall patterns are mostly bimodal (i.e. monsoon and winter rains), with over 80% of total rainfall received during the monsoon months of May to August. Overall, agriculture depends on seasonal rainfall and is thus prone to droughts and erratic weather.

Socio-Economical Characteristics

Small holdings and fragmented parcels are typical characteristics of Nepalese land holdings. Over 80% of land is in the hills/mountains, with an average size of 0.5 ha in the Hills and 1 ha in the Terai. Farming systems are mixed and complex, incorporating crops, livestock, and agro-forestry components. Arable land is limited and any expansion of cultivated land is at the expense of the forest, which is inherently unsustainable. A rapidly expanding population and urbanization has further reduced the average size of land holdings. Increasing fragmentation leads to low production potential.

Subsistence/labor intensive and organic manure-based farming practice predominates. Access to technologies is particularly limited for poor and marginal farmers in remote hilly areas, as is access to markets, quality inputs, roads, and institutional credit. Extension and training facilities are mainly pro-rich or focused on influential farmers in the more accessible areas (i.e. road-sides). Therefore, poor, land-less, marginal farmers and women are further marginalized when it comes to accessing improved agricultural practices/technology. Poor people and farmers are limited in their ability to invest their own resources, which leads to poor agricultural productivity and high food-insecurity in remote hilly areas.

Factors Associated with Food-Insecurity in Nepal

Figure 4 presents the interrelated factors associated with the food insecurity inNepal. Small holdings, marginal land for agricultural production, weather-dependent cultivation, and poor technology/technical know-how of farmers are some of the key factors. Increased population, often perceived as a major cause of land degradation, leads to a widening in the gap between food production and food needs. Lack of transportation/distribution of food in the remote mountains, and – more importantly – lack of income or purchasing power for the majority of marginal farmers in remote districts of Nepal increases the severity of the food security situation. First, delivery/transportation of food produced in the Terai and other parts ofNepal to remote hills like the Karnali zone, which has no road to connect it to other districts, is a big challenge. Even if food is made available to district headquarters via air lifts, poor farmers often lack the money to buy food. Therefore, this serious and complicated problem impacts the nutrition, health, and life expectancy of people living in these areas.

Figure 4. Factors contributing to food-insecurity in Nepal.

Challenges to Nepalese Agriculture

Poor Extension/Access to Technology

In the past, agricultural policy in Nepal has been pro-rich or focussed only on those areas most accessible to influential and resource-rich farmers. Most poor and marginal farmers and women do not have access to non-formal education or technology (e.g. improved seeds). Past research efforts were concentrated on cereals and irrigated agriculture. More importantly, research was conducted based on researchers’ interests rather than farmers’ needs. Therefore, past research and development in agriculture had been not been very successful. Disparities exist between regions and among farmers for access to technology. Similarly, there is a decline in the supply if improved inputs such as seeds and fertilizers. Improved seed distribution in Nepal appears to have shrunk in the recent past (Figure 5), which has impacted productivity. Additionally, there are negative impacts of past agricultural efforts including the loss of indigenous knowledge and agro-biodiversity and environmental pollution (e.g. soil/water contamination due to indiscriminate use of pesticides and fertilizers).
Figure 5. Trend of improved seeds supply in Nepal during the 1991 to 2000.

Nepalese agriculture is not in a position to meet the food security for its increasing population.

Socio-Economical and Political Issues

There are numerous socio-economic and political problems associated with the low agricultural productivity and high food insecurity. Hill and mountain areas are particularly vulnerable to poverty due to their inaccessibility, fragility, marginality, and diversity (Ellis-Jones, 1999). Recent political conflict has accelerated the rural exodus, with internal displacement causing food insecurity in some areas. In other regions (e.g. Upper Karnali) food insecurity itself is the cause of migration to other parts of the country. In recent years, civil war and unrest has increased displacements and internal migration. A large chunk of the working population has also migrated overseas or to the cities and urban areas of Nepal and India for jobs. Over 40% of households in Nepal have at least one person away for overseas jobs. Moreover, younger generations are less attracted to farming than their older counterparts (Subedi and KC, 2001). These social factors have led to elderly, disabled, women, and children farmers in rural Nepal today.

Agro-Environmental Problems

Land degradation, loss of agro-biodiversity as a result of modern agricultural practices, encroachment of forest lands, deforestation, soil degradation through erosion due to runoff/floods, nutrients mining, and declining soil organic matter are key environmental factors responsible for decreasing productivity and land sustainability in Nepal. Over-exploitation of forest resources, sloppy land cultivation, and activities like road construction using heavy equipment has led to increasing landslides, flooding, and downstream sedimentation, leading to loss of productive soil/land. Similarly, declining soil fertility/soil mining brings flat valley lands/plains into new settlement (i.e. urbanization), which shrinks the size of productive land and leads to inadequate food production.

In the last two decades, Kathmandu valley has suffered from significant health risks due to agricultural chemical pollution of air, soil, water, and crops. Nepal has the lowest per capita pesticide use in South Asian (i.e. an average consumption of 142 g/ha in South compared to 500 g/ha for India), yet pesticide and other agro-chemical misuse is a major environmental problem. This is because of excessive pesticide use in the commercial vegetable production pockets, especially in urban/semi-urban areas, and greater access to markets and high value crops (Palikhe, 2000; Kansakar et al., 2002). Pesticide exposure can have chronic and acute health impacts. There is no systematic registration or distribution system in Nepal, so the lack of proper training and regulatory compliance is responsible for many pesticide hazards. Pesticides are used without health and safety measures which can lead to poisoning and death. Although there are no systematic studies documenting the extent of pesticide use and their impacts on human health in Nepal, Atreya (2007) surveyed 291 households in commercial vegetable growing areas and concluded that the magnitude of exposure to insecticides/fungicides significantly influences the negative health symptoms. Upadhaya (2001) highlighted several reasons for the prevalence of pesticide residue in the foods, soils, and waters of Nepal. For example, farmers do not usually wait for appropriate time intervals between pesticide application. Misuse of pesticides (e.g. use of pesticides for baiting and fishing) also occurs. Moreover, many long-banned pesticides are still used in Nepal. Mishandling, occupational hazards, substandard application/storage/disposal, and residue limits are key concerns in the use of pesticides in Nepal with respect to human health and the environment.

Soil contamination due to pesticides, heavy metal wastes, nitrate leaching, and soil acidification due to chemical fertilizers can all contaminate soil and drinking sources in Nepal (Singh 2001). Excessive nitrate in water is known to cause skin discoloration, blue baby syndrome, and impair the digestive system. Although Nepal uses relatively little fertilizer (i.e. an average annual consumption of 30 kg/ha (Subedi and Jaishy, 2000)), it has a highly skewed application pattern. Some reports indicate that over 300 kg/ha of nitrogen is applied to crops such as potatoes and vegetables. Water contaminated with nitrate and pesticides and urban air pollution due to dust, smog and smoke are other important environmental problems, although there is no account of the environmental and health risks of these pollutants. However, indiscriminate use of fertilizers and pesticides can pose risks to public health and the environment, putting farmers and consumers at risk.

Prospects for Nepalese Agriculture and Priorities for the Future

Nepal offers tremendous opportunities and has great potential for agriculture. It has agro-ecological variations that allow it to growing up to three crops per year, bio-diversity, ample water resources, and hardworking farmers. Nepal can easily meet its food requirements, provide employment, and sustain its agro-environment by properly using its potential. The following priority areas must be addressed in order to increase agricultural productivity, create food security, and maintain agro-environments for the long term.

Priority I: Water Management/Irrigation

Water is the life of agriculture and is therefore vital for increased productivity. Since there is little hope of expanding agricultural land in Nepal, increasing agricultural production must occur through (i) increased cropping intensity (i.e. growing more than one crop per year on a piece of land) and (ii) increased land productivity (i.e. increase the yield per unit area). Water is vital in both cases. Other production factors such as improved seeds, fertilizers, and pest control practices are less important/effective in comparison to water supply. Once there is an assured water supply, the next phase of investment should be on research and extension activities like capacity building of farmers, improved seeds, and nutrients management.

It is very important to bring together the resources previously devoted to agricultural extension and divert them to irrigation infrastructure development. The first priority should be given to utilizing blue water (irrigation) and conserving green water (rainfall) for crop production. Wherever technically feasible, canal irrigation (micro to macro projects) and ground water irrigation facilities should be developed. For uplands, where canal irrigation is not feasible, water harvesting techniques and efficient irrigation methods such as drip irrigation should be emphasized. In areas where there are limited water resources, water harvesting techniques and conservation technologies such as agro-forestry, mulching, and cover crop practices should be employed.

Priority II: Soil Conservation

Given Nepal’s fragile and sloppy topography, and excessive land pressure due to slope-cropping, grazing animals, deforestation, and excavation, there is a huge loss of surface soil through erosion. Soil eroded from the mountains as a result of flooding and sedimentation is deposited on the plains, resulting in thousands of hectares of unproductive Terai land. Nepal must develop and promote technologies for soil and water conservation. Equally important is the need for fruit and fodder trees on slopes and degraded lands and a stall-feeding system for livestock in order to reduce soil erosion and prevent manure loss.

Priority III: Focus on Resource/Marginal Farmers and Women Farmers

In the past, the majority of extension efforts were focused on influential, rich male farmers in accessible areas close to roads and with access to inputs. This approach neglected majority of the farmers in the remote interior, small farmers, land-less farmers, and women. Land-less farmers are usually low-caste and poor, with no opportunity for agricultural production, mostly work for others, and are always food insecure. Such farmers have not benefitted from any agricultural initiatives in the past. Land-less or small farmers require land to cultivate or place of employment for their livelihood. Research and extension efforts should be conducted with the goal of poverty alleviation, food security, and sustainable agriculture. Community based approaches, capacity building, and reduced social exclusions will help.

A pro-poor focus should occur. Programs should focus on creative income generating activities (e.g. fresh vegetable, herb, and fruit cultivation). Such activities should provide poor farmers with the opportunity to generate income so that they will be able to purchase food. Making food available by air-lifting it from the Terai or another country is not a lasting solution for the problem of food insecurity in the remote hills unless people can afford to buy it.

Priority IV: Agricultural Infrastructure and Production Diversification

The issue of poor accessibility of many districts, particularly in the mountains, is clearly important. Remote districts must be connected with roads and electricity. These facilities provide farmers the opportunity to sell, process, and preserve their niche-based commodities, and to purchase food produced in other parts of the country.

There is need to diversify crops production based on niches and market opportunities (e.g. tea, coffee, cardamom, herbs). Land-less farmers should be supported with credits for improved agriculture practices or alternatives such as improved livestock production, herbs, fruits, and vegetables (in the Hills and mountains), and cereals and foods (in the plains). Improved livestock production, fish culture, dairy, and medicinal herbs, are agro-forestry based cottage industries that can be used where feasible.


Nepalese agriculture cannot meet the growing food requirements of its exploding population. Rapidly increasing population which puts pressure on limited land resources causes low land productivity. Low production, distribution, poor access to food in remote areas, and low income are key factors causing food insecurity. Past agricultural efforts have not gone far enough. Research, extension, and capacity building programs should be pro-poor and women focussed. The government must provide top priority to irrigation and road links in order to increase production, distribution, and access to food. Crop diversification, conservation agriculture, and rural income-generating activities should be the priority in rural areas.


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