Rice self-sufficiency is key to Nepal’s economic development, but how to go about it?
– Krishna Dev Joshi and Santosh Upadhaya
As Nepalis prepare for the annual rice planting day on 29 June by wading into flooded paddy fields, it is a time to remind ourselves that the country is more dependent on the import of this staple than ever before.
Just one statistic says it all: the productivity growth of rice in Nepal in the last 54 years was 1.5%, and has not kept up with the population growth rate of 2.3%. Nepal’s per capita rice consumption per year in Nepal is 137.5 kg, one of the highest in the world, but we do not produce enough rice in the country.
Additionally, the spread of roads and better income means more people are switching to rice, and the demand for branded fine, aromatic and long grain rice is increasing. The share of rice in total cereal consumption has gone up to 67% as people abandon traditional nutrient-dense food like maize, finger millet, buckwheat, barley, foxtail millet, and amaranth. Still, rice contributes 40% of the energy and 23% of protein in a Nepali’s daily diet.
Only about 20% of Nepalese farmers have access to any kind of mechanisation. Women bear the brunt of the drudgery. Most are subsistence farmers, dependent on rainfed agriculture.
Rice is by far the most important crop of Nepal, primary source of livelihood and income for more than two-thirds of farm households and it is deeply embedded in the country’s culture. It contributes 20% to the Agricultural Gross Domestic Product (AGDP) and more than 7% to the total GDP.
But there is a huge rice yield gap – the difference between attainable yield and potential yield which is between 45-55% in Nepal. Fluctuation in rice production is evident with low rice productivity (Figure 1).
Increasing rice production, productivity and profitability would need knowledge of intensive rice farming using best rice varieties and best management practices, and linking production with rice-based agri-food systems. That has not happened because of the lack of training, adequate and quality inputs, climate change and seasonal variations in rainfall.
Limited surplus for rice and other crops coming to markets is therefore unsurprising. Half of Nepal’s farmers produce only for their own consumption, 40% sell only when there is a surplus, and only 10% are farming rice to sell. This situation is unlikely to change in the near future unless radical action is taken.
Low agricultural surplus is the key reason for Nepal’s growing negative trade balance in food products since 1990. Nepal imports rice worth $300 million each year mainly from India, making it a major drain on the national budget. This diverts money away from food and nutrition security, rural poverty and delivery of sustainable development goals (SDGs).
Nepal, however, lacks the technical capacity, milling technology and a developed rice value chain to work towards rice self-sufficiency even as demand grows.
Half of the world’s crop production in last century was attributed to the contribution of genetic component alone. Nepal released 87 rice varieties (including two hybrids) until 2020. More than two-thirds of genetic improvement in rice in Nepal came from the International Rice Research Institute contributing about 3.78 million tons of rice production worth $890 million annually.
Fast-tracking deployment of new batches of high yielding, climate resilient and multi-stress tolerant rice varieties is overdue to improve rice productivity. Nearly 85% of seeds used for rice production are inbred varieties from farm-saved seeds. Ironically, rice production is still dominated by old and obsolete rice varieties bred and disseminated during or before the 1990s. Demand for hybrid rice seeds is picking up, but is met through imports from India and China — contributing to a growing negative trade imbalance.
Crops like rice need 17 elements (including trace elements) for their proper growth and development. The attention is concentrated on urea (nitrogen), but there needs to be more awareness about the other nutrients that the rice crop needs. Average nutrient use in Nepal for all crops in last 11 years was 47 kg per hectare (Figure 2) which includes nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – half of it used on rice.
As a rule of thumb, 100 kg of nitrogen is needed to produce 3 tons of rice per hectare and one can understand how undernourished rice crops are in Nepal. We are expecting miracles in rice productivity growth if we do not increase balanced nutrition.
Urban land expansion in the Tarai, Kathmandu, Pokhara and other towns rose from 221.1 km2 in 1989 to 930.2 km2 in 2016. This means 71,000 ha of land was converted into housing and 93% of this was prime agricultural land suitable for rice cultivation.
Outmigration has also meant that 18-37% of farms have been abandoned in the mountainous regions.
These trends have serious implications for food and nutrition security in the country. But this change in land use pattern and land abandonment is hardly reflected in any government data base of crop area coverage in Nepal.
The COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to rethink health and livelihoods of low income groups and vulnerable people in Nepal’s overall economy. However, this crisis offers us the chance to build technology intensive rice-based agri-food system in Nepal.
Now is the time to have a national discourse and consensus on the type of actions needed to make the country self-sufficient in rice, improve productivity and profitability of rice-based system using innovative solutions, create more jobs in rice-based agri-food systems for Nepali youth and women by connecting production with the food systems and fully unlock the immense potential of rice-based agri-food systems in Nepal for overall economic development.
Nepal needs to adopt technology-intensive farming to increase rice productivity by at least 1.5 times in next five years and reduce cost of production to make it competitive while protecting the environment. This is best done by integrating climate resilient technologies and precision rice farming practices widely.
A practical strategy could be to intensify climate resilient, high yielding and high quality improved inbred varieties in at least 60% of the area, conserving and commercialising indigenous rice landrace in about 15% while growing high-yielding and multi-stress tolerant hybrid rice varieties in about 25% area.
Deploying hybrid rice in drought-prone areas is an innovative concept as this is where hybrids can provide maximum benefits where inbred varieties and landraces fail to provide economical yield. Developing hybrid rice seed production capability in country can provide additional 0.5 million jobs per year considering that hybrid rice technology is intensified in about 30% of rice area. Unlocking the real potential of chaite (spring) rice using new technologies has strategic importance in achieving food security in Nepal.
Post COVID-19 agriculture extension can be totally transformed because 90% of Nepal’s population now has mobile phones that can be used for sharing technical message during critical growth stage of rice. Digital decision support tools such as Rice Doctor, Rice Crop Manager, WeRise are also available, although some of these would need to be adapted for Nepal.
Nepal lacks a critical mass of trained professionals in the National Agriculture and Research Systems (NARES) that have limited exposure to new science, technologies and innovations. Moreover, their institutional set up is not aligned to respond to the changing needs of transforming existing subsistence rice production into a technology intensive rice-based agri-food system.
The government of Nepal and IRRI signed a five year work plan to achieve rice self-sufficiency and generate employment in rural areas. IRRI builds capacity with cutting-edge rice science, farming techniques and technologies, and research and development. Advanced plant breeding, precision rice farming, low emission technologies, women-friendly mechanisation and many other innovations that can contribute to transform the country’s agriculture sector help achieve food and nutrition security.
Krishna Dev Joshi is International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) representative in Nepal and Santosh Upadhaya is Agriculture Research and Development Specialist for IRRI Nepal. Opinions herein are those of authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of IRRI.