Think anew

Global shortages and soaring prices of food items have now jolted the government into action, as scarcity and higher prices at home have already started biting sharply. In the past couple of years or so, even more markedly in recent months, food prices have shown a steep upward curve. Various production constraints and the diversion of food grain to the generation of bio-fuel on an increasing scale continue to drive up the food prices globally. But the hardest hit are the poorest in the developing countries where a large part of an average citizen’s income is spent on food. The announcement on Wednesday of government ban on the export of rice and wheat was a necessary step, as it will help prevent the food problem from becoming worse. But the action should have been taken even earlier, not just after businessmen’s suggestions, because the government was supposed to be aware of the state of food stocks in Nepal and the implications of global crunch. Nepal had been exporting its food grain to India, China and Bangladesh. India has stopped sending rice (except fine Basmati) to Nepal for the past six months.

Nepal has become a net food-importing nation for a number of years from a net food exporter. This is despite government claim since the start of planned development in Nepal that it has given top priority to the farm sector. Indeed, agriculture has received one of the biggest concentrations of government budget, including billions of rupees in foreign aid over the years. But the performance of all this investment has not been satisfactory, and Nepali agriculture still depends chiefly on the mercy of the unpredictable monsoons, as irrigation is available only for a little more than one-tenth of the total land under cultivation. With the rise in population and shrinkage of cultivable land, the gap between demand and supply is likely to widen in future. Therefore, transformation of Nepali agriculture needs to be emphasised.

Among the various factors that have affected farm output is the increasing unattractiveness to farmers of investing in food crops, because of increasing costs — for instance, of fertiliser and other inputs — and declining subsidies, lack of irrigation, and in cases, lack of easy linkage with markets, the necessity for most farmers of selling the produce when the prices are cheapest. A major factor in shrinking cultivable land in Nepal has been the rapid encroachment on fertile land due to building, particularly the lack of planned urbanisation. In India, experts have started stressing the need for a second Green Revolution to address its future food needs. Nepal must rethink its agricultural policy and come up with a sound one that can significantly boost farm productivity and make an optimum use of the available land. The CPN-Maoist, which has emerged as the single largest party in the newly elected Constituent Assembly, has put transformation of agriculture at the centre of its vision for ‘Economic Revolution’. The current global food crisis should bring the vital importance of thinking anew in terms of the country’s short- and long-term food security home to its planners and policymakers.