Sustainable agriculture: Thinking beyond subsidies

We can move towards the path of sustainability if the government and other stakeholders were to think beyond just subsidising inputs for the farmers and start planning big to bring innovative technologies

Agriculture remains the mainstay of the Nepalis, hence making it sustainable is important. The conventional agricultural system, which was of a subsistence type, used pesticides on a large scale, which degraded soil quality and affected the agro ecosystem. Realising these drawbacks, the concept of sustainable agriculture has emerged. Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs is the basic principle of sustainability. The three pillars of sustainable agriculture, namely, social, economic and environmental, along with interdependence of related factors like agronomy, energy (non-renewable) and politics make it difficult for the stakeholders to develop programmes that support sustainable agriculture.

When it comes to sustainable agriculture, Nepali farmers think it is organic farming, which is, of course, a major strategy. Among the rural farmers, the focus is on conserving the soil quality and agro ecosystem via organic farming. However, agriculture sustainability is not only about conserving the ecosystem through the adoption of organic farming. It also involves soil and water conservation activities, integrated pest management and non-chemical methods of weed control. Although developing organic norms to make agriculture as sustainable as possible is worth appreciating, a dearth of other strategies and approaches creates hurdles in fulfilling other dimensions of sustainability.

Market assurance of organic products is a challenge in sustainability. Organic farmers are often compelled to sell their organic products at a low price, which demotivates other farmers from engaging in organic production. Besides, there is a lack of appropriate policies aimed at empowering organic producers and finding a market for those products. A dwindling number of farm hands have only added to the challenges in agricultural commercialisation and trade.

Despite all odds, we can still move towards the path of sustainability if the government and other stakeholders were to think beyond just subsidising inputs for the farmers and start planning big to bring innovative technologies, and implementing the objectives mentioned in the Agriculture Development Strategy (ADS) 2015 sooner than later.

Realising the fact that farmers are still the principal mangers of plant genetic resources, many governmental and non-governmental organisations have been encouraging the farmers to manage local landraces of important crops and medicinal plants for their livelihood to maintain the biodiversity. Furthermore, knowledge sharing plays a vital role, and indigenous knowledge can’t be overlooked in research and extension programmes. Such knowledge has proved to be successful in maintaining the agro biodiversity, especially in harsh environmental conditions. There are evidences where the Nepali farmer has replaced the main crops to cope with the climatic changes and maintain food security. So to move towards sustainability, knowledge sharing on a wider scale should be taken as a never ending approach.

As mentioned in the Agriculture Development Strategy, special policies to cope with the impacts of climate change and natural disaster should be generated and implemented. As in India, Nepal could also develop agriculture insurance and a disaster response mechanism for crop failures and livestock death as a consequence of climate variability. Degradation of renewable resources like agricultural land and water can be solved by better water management practices and land utilisation.

Identifying, prioritising and encouraging organic producers across Nepal should be a step from the government side to produce organic products not only for export but also for consumption within the country, too. Since organic agriculture is the base for sustainable agriculture, districts and farmers who are organic producers by default need to be identified and encouraged to share knowledge so as to create awareness among the people.

Improved post-harvest technology and value chain development are inevitable. We see significant losses in horticulture products and food grains at different stages, from harvesting to marketing. So better facilities and technologies to preserve what farmers grow are important.  Along with this, we need market accessibility. Easy access to roads and markets has major implications for food security since surplus products can be sold. Investment in road infrastructure is, therefore, a must.

The information and communication technology (ICT) sector is developing rapidly with growing usage of radio, TV and mobile phones amongst the rural people. Necessary information about market demand and supply, market opportunities and challenges, and product price can be shared on the social media to help the farmers learn better practices for a secure livelihood. The benefit of using ICTs in agriculture thus should be widely disseminated across the country with priority to women, keeping in mind that farm activities and women’s involvement and decisions go side by side in agriculture.

To meet the present challenges in agriculture, there is a need to increase investment in research work.

Rijal is assistant professor, Agriculture and Forestry University