Organic farming is not a new method of growing crops. The conventional crop production system in Nepal’s hilly areas is almost totally organic and such practices along with diverse topography, soil and climate have increased feasibility of organic farming. There is immense scope for export of organic products to India and other countries provided standard can be maintained. In this context, the suggestion of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing the Constitutional Assembly that Nepal adopt organic farming is relevant.
The increasing demand of organic food due to growing awareness among educated consumers and their increasing purchasing power could provide the impetus to organic agriculture. Furthermore, agro-tourism is increasingly popular and organic farms could turn into favorite tourist spots. This has promoted the gradual process of conversion of high input agrochemical-based farming into organic farming.
But can we produce sufficient food to feed the growing population if the whole country adopts organic farming as suggested by Modi? This may not be possible for years to come for the following reasons. First, there is no reliable technology in Nepal for organic agriculture. Second, the food balance sheet of Nepal is already negative. It means we need to produce more food through modern production technologies. Thus the best strategy would be to adopt a two-pronged agriculture strategy.
The first approach would produce sufficient food to ensure food security in the country. For this, Nepal must increase its agricultural yields of food crops by using modern technologies including right fertilizers and plant protection chemicals. Realizing this, Nepal government had introduced Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in the 1990s. This system of production promotes use of balanced production inputs—both organic and inorganic—in a way that on one side, the productivity is increased or maintained, and on the other, the produces are safe to eat.
Thousands of farmers in many districts are estimated to have adopted IPM techniques, and that the number is increasing at 10 percent a year. But there still remains the challenge of helping IPM farmers compete with those who still haven’t given up the misuse of inorganic fertilizers and plant protection chemicals.
The food crops to be included in basic food security program are rice, maize, wheat, millet, potato, pulses and different vegetables. Among these, rice-based cropping is possible in moderately productive land with high cropping intensity, and high use of irrigation and other production inputs. This cropping practice is common in Tarai and valleys of the hills. Maize and millet are common crops of hills. Potato is a popular crop in all ecological zones and vegetables are intensively grown in areas with market access.
The second approach should promote organic farming which is defined as production of crops without using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and plant growth regulators. The basic rule of organic production is to prohibit synthetic inputs for production. However, synthetic inputs, such as insect pheromones, are allowed but natural inputs harmful to human health and environment are prohibited. At present organic agriculture in Nepal is in its infancy.
The existing policy is supportive of organic farming of export-oriented commodities such as apiculture, coffee, tea, large cardamom and ginger. The Ministry of Agriculture Development has already declared its support of organic farming through its “Guidelines on technical standards for organic agriculture production and processing” in March 2009. Furthermore, the government has also made provision for subsidies for organic manures.
Individual farmers, NGOs, and some donor funded projects have initiated different promotional activities for organic farming but these activities are not well coordinated and documented. One organization is unaware of another’s initiatives. Organically produced orthodox tea of Nepal is now exported to Japan and some EU countries. Production of organic vegetables has started in vicinities of big cities like Kathmandu and Pokhara to meet domestic demand.
Crops selected for organic farming should be geared towards both domestic and international markets. Areas where chemical pesticides and inorganic fertilizers are not in common use and Farm Yard Manure (FYM) and organic materials for compost are easily available are considered ideal for organic farming. Various local production techniques available in our traditional farming communities are close to organic farming and they should be scaled-up. Incorporation of courses related to organic agriculture is necessary in our universities and training institutions in order to develop professionals in this field.
However, when deciding on whether to opt for organic production and conversion thereafter, there should be close scrutiny of different production and management methods. The generally needed conversion period of three-four years makes long-term planning indispensable. For such planning, a careful cost-benefits analysis should be carried out. Most Nepali farmers have small areas under cultivation and it is uneconomical for them to practice organic production, unless they are affiliated with a group or a cooperative. Furthermore, organic certification, which is yet to be legalized in Nepal, is costly for small farmers. Therefore farmers’ group certification needs to be recognized.
The author is Former Director General of the Department of Agriculture [email protected]