In the modern scheme, nothing quite compares to the way villages in Nepal grow food. In contrast to the world’s present agricultural landscape of mass monoculture—GPS-directed tractors on thousand-hectare swaths of GMO corn, soybeans, canola, rice—Nepal can feel like a saving grace. Steep, complex geography and the late acceptance of Western influences have kept much of the mid-Hills, and especially high mountain areas of Nepal, relatively protected in their practices of traditional agriculture. Village farmers still grow heirloom varieties of rice, maize, wheat, millet, buckwheat, lentils, beans, and other staple crops, with local seed carefully selected and saved generation after generation. Terrace farming on steep terrain limits mechanization, so most things are done old-school: plowing with oxen and wooden implements; digging with hand tools like the trusty kodalo; weeding, harvesting, and threshing of grains with sickle and hand. Firewood, fodder, and manure are carried by head-strap; houses are built by the craftsmanship of local carpenters and village laborers. The iconic image of the subsistence lifestyle is part of what makes Nepal unique.
Older generations of Nepalis often remember these village scenes from their youth. Much of the agriculture took place in the mid-Hills, with most of the population living there as well, maintaining this village-based lifestyle of traditional, subsistence farming. There were hardships, stemming from a poorly connected economy, food shortages, and limited access to education, roads, and value-added goods. Some Nepalis remember feudal land ownership systems, in which a few wealthy families owned the majority of land in a village, and village members indebted to those families worked the fields, never able to work themselves out of debt. But generally, village units were highly self-sufficient and autonomous: producing their own food, fiber, and shelter needs with local resources, passing down knowledge within the community to younger generations. The astounding volume of indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants, edible wild plants, and religiously important plants is as varied and prolific as Nepal’s ethnic landscape. But the historical subsistence farming landscape and village community model have diminished greatly.
The quest to increase efficiency
In the past 70 years, Nepal’s agriculture has been affected by social and economic overturn. A slow, government-supported requisition of land in the Terai from indigenous communities, mainly the Tharu and Bote people, began in the 1920s, and accelerated in the 1950s and 60s with the eradication of malaria and low government land costs. This resulted in open floodgates for mass migration from the mid-Hills to the plains. Land in the Terai was rapidly cleared of forest, dammed, and intensively cultivated in agriculture, especially under rice paddies due to improved irrigation techniques. The same aid programs that brought DDT to eliminate malaria, brought pesticides and other Green Revolution-inspired farming tools like chemical fertilizers and mechanization, which further supported efforts to make the Terai the new “breadbasket” of Nepal.
Since then, large foreign aid programs have focused efforts on promoting access to imported fertilizers, pesticides, and hybrid seeds with the over-arching goal of improving food security, while government programs have begun subsidizing these materials. Academic agricultural research and education, both within Nepal’s universities and government, has also been largely directed at maintaining conventional systems and improving their efficiency.
When relationships of trade with India improved through the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace, many doors opened for the import and export potential of agricultural commodities and other goods. Improved infrastructure like roads meant increased access to markets, which drove agricultural production in a more commercial direction, thus bringing income to farmers selling their crops to an expanding urban market. Additionally, waves of Nepalis looking for work in Kathmandu or India to escape poverty or the heavy monarchical rule, contributed to an already steady migration out of the mid-hills and mountain villages. Migrant labor eventually spilled into the Middle East as well, perhaps adopted from India’s early trends. Out-migration further contributed to diminished populations in the farming communities of the mid-Hills.
There are many ways to justify Nepal’s shifts toward high-input, conventional agriculture. The pre-industrial, subsistence systems of the mid-Hills often produced low or inconsistent yields, with poor soil fertility management being the main shortfall of traditional farming methods, both because of high erosion potential during the monsoon, and insufficient supply of nutrients from manure or insufficient quantity of manure. Traditional techniques for growing corn, rice, and millet can be exhaustive on soil nutrients if manure is the only nutrient source, and soils are left bare and exposed between cropping seasons. Soils were often shallow, clayey, or rocky on the steep slopes of the mid-Hills, compared to the rich valley soils of the Terai. Rain-fed agriculture meant vulnerability to moisture patterns, whether because of a late start to the monsoon and a long dry season, or, on a wet year, flooding in the lowlands. Unpredictability led to periodic crop failures, leaving subsistence farmers in a deficit for their year’s food supply. Crop failures also resulted from pests like blast, a destructive fungus, in native rice paddies. Sometimes only the new imported hybrid rice strain, requiring high amounts of chemical fertilizers, could stand up to infestation.
In times of stress or shortage, farmers historically have not had much external support from the government, and substantial development programs did not reach widely until the 1980s and 90s, and not even now in remote areas. And the work was hard, especially for women: digging, carrying, weeding, harvesting, threshing, caring for animals, season after season. Whether because of insufficient land, manure, water, or labor, it was common that annual production was not sufficient to feed a family for a year. The promise of the Green Revolution—stable, high yields; irrigation; mechanization—was resounding.
Beyond concerns of being able to produce enough food, social changes trickled down to the lives of farmers and villagers. Nepali society moved toward a market-driven economy: money became the new “caste.” Farmers began receiving higher market costs from raising animals than growing staple crops like corn and wheat. In urban areas, vegetable consumption increased, and farmers could focus on growing monocultures of high value vegetable crops for sale in the urban market. Conventional methods became essential to maintain a profitable production and deal with pests. Education also became a priority within Nepali society, and moving out of the village was often necessary for youth to attend a good school. With the promise of work in the city, and the doors that open with education, the subsistence village life, with its physical hardships and perhaps its “smallness,” was no longer as attractive. For those who pursued an education in agriculture, the message delivered was that conventional farming was the only way to secure a profitable and stable future for the farmer.
And now we are looking at a Nepal with the majority of food production coming from mechanized and intensive conventional farming in the flat and open southern Terai, producing the majority of grains and vegetables grown in the country. Urban areas display a heavy dependence on food imported from India, with imports trending upward alongside the remittance-based economy, and constituting a larger share of the market exchange than Nepal’s agricultural exports. Land in the Terai is rapidly crowding, becoming more expensive, while land in the mid-Hills is rapidly being abandoned. A 2010 study by the researcher T. H. Aase, estimates that 60 percent of the farmland cultivated in Manang district in 1970 is out of production due to migration to cities and abroad. The number of Nepalis permanently employed in agriculture has decreased by 41 percent since the 1990s.
Many of the families that have left for Kathmandu or gone abroad still own arable land in the village, and it stays tied up in ownership and sits as banjho (barren). Meanwhile, the landless seek employment in the same metropolitan areas because they cannot sustain a livelihood in the village without land. It’s common to see mid-Hills villages with 50 percent or less of their historical population, and a high proportion of elders, while the younger village members have left for school or work. Indigenous populations of the Terai have also struggled in their efforts to acquire farmland, amid the competition of growing mechanized production and agricultural investments in the name of bikaas (development). Overall, there appears to be a burgeoning imbalance between the heavyweight production of “Commercial Ag” and the small farmers that make up Nepal’s village communities.
The cost of conventional development
The current trajectory of agricultural development paints a singular and arguably unstable picture for Nepal’s future. There are many reasons to be skeptical about the changes that Green Revolution farming has brought, and where they will continue to lead.
In Kathmandu, the consequences of chemical farming are increasingly visible in public health. The produce reaching markets, both from vegetable farms in the Kathmandu Valley and the Terai, has demonstrated a routine problem in the last several years of over-application of chemical pesticides, leading to vegetables unfit for consumption. In the rare cases of government monitoring, vegetables with intermediate levels of pesticide contamination are required to sit for three to four days until toxicity goes down, and suddenly they are “fit for consumption.” Of the pesticides commonly used in Nepal (malathion, chlorpyrifos-methyl, cypermethrin, deltametrin, among others), all are carcinogenic.
Overall shifts to an urban lifestyle have contributed to widespread issues with chronic illness, especially in the growing metropolitan population. For example, one third of Nepal’s population has hypertension, and 15 percent of Nepalis have diabetes, likely due to a more sedentary lifestyle and changes in diet, like increased packaged, processed, and fast food, as well as a transition from eating traditional grain porridge (dhendo) or unpolished local varieties of rice, to mainly white rice. Transportation of fruits and vegetables, both from India and within Nepal, means a significantly lower nutrition content by the time produce finally enters a consumer’s meal. Reduction in vitamin C in fruits and vegetables after seven days of refrigerated storage can be as high as 50 or 75 percent, depending on the crop, and transportation and storage of produce in Nepal rarely involves refrigeration. In a less direct way, the transportation infrastructure that has been needed to transport food into and throughout the country, is contributing to world-record pollution rates in the Kathmandu Valley. In turn, pollution has contributed dramatically to increases in cases of lung cancer.
Beyond health concerns, Nepal has traded a largely autonomous and self-sufficient, albeit strained, agricultural subsistence for an import-dependent, market-driven economy. Now, there is a considerable dependence on cash for livelihood, instead of on resources like land, crops, and animals. The majority of food hitting urban and semi-urban markets is grown with reliance on imported chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and hybridized seeds, or the food itself is imported. We saw during the petrol crisis of winter 2015–16 what happens when the border with India is closed and the stream of imports is jeopardized. It seems a bit narrow to argue that increased production of food with dependence on these imports is improving Nepal’s overall food security. Additionally, high input farming means high costs to someone, and if it’s not the farmer, it’s likely the government through its subsidy programs, and the NGOs that provide aid in the agricultural sector. Currently about a third of agricultural investments stem from foreign aid. When considering a future of Nepal without foreign aid, the question is whether the feasibility of high-input farming will continue. When discussing livelihoods based on cash, with a fluctuating inflation rate, will Nepalis be food secure into the future?
Along the same lines of food security is the downside, the “catch,” of the high production of conventional farming systems: low adaptability. Beyond the concerns already described, cultivation with agrochemicals and hybrid seeds is potentially unsustainable. Hybrid seeds may provide higher yield, or address a pest problem, but often vary in performance year to year, incur added costs to the farmer, and require more water and fertilizer than the local variety. Undiversified, chemical- and irrigation-dependent monocultures of annual crops make it difficult for the food system to adapt to drought, flood, pest infestations, and climate change. Agrochemical use has detrimental impacts on the ecosystem, such as losses in pollinator populations like honey bees, groundwater contamination from pesticides, and degradation of long-term soil fertility.
Finally, we have the considerations of community and heritage. In the transition to conventional agriculture, small things are being lost to modernization that are, in truth, very big things to Nepal. Rich seed diversity for native varieties of rice, millet, buckwheat, corn, wheat, and beans are being replaced by the hundreds with imported “improved” hybrid seed varieties, although Nepali farmers still show a stubbornness to preserve their edible history. Nepali seeds have been cultivated and meticulously selected by the fingers of farmers to be uniquely suited to the infinite microclimates of Nepal’s mountain hollows, to the variable soils across the wrinkled landscape, to local pests, and to the often-extreme weather conditions. Farmers complain that hybrid varieties don’t taste good, or are difficult to thresh.
There is also rich language around cultivated plants, matured over centuries, and as vast and distinct as Nepal’s many ethnic groups. The same crop can have names in upwards of 40 different languages, and even the parts of the plant can have unique names, depending on the crop. For example, all the parts of a taro plant have their own name: karkalo (leaf), gaaba (shoot), and pindalu (root). There are specific words for all of the parts of a terrace (kanla, kunaa, gaarha, and chheu), for all of the small pieces that make up a wooden plow (halo, juwa, harish, phaali, karuwa, ahno), for the four different weedings throughout a growing season of corn, and there are names for the six two-month seasons that make up a farmer’s calendar year (basanta, grishma, baarkha, sharad, hemanta, shishir). What is more, these words change with location and ethnicity within the country.
Work in the fields used to be done in parma groups, where groups of women shared the responsibility of farming tasks like carrying dokos of manure, weeding, transplanting, and harvesting throughout the growing season. All community members shared extensive knowledge of local wild plants as food and medicine, and almost all Nepali celebrations are connected to seasons or agricultural livelihoods. In this way, farming doesn’t look so much like agriculture—it is instead an integrated life close to the land. Changes in agriculture and development happened so quickly that these traditions and knowledge are still alive in many villages, but the knowledge lies with the elders, while the young people are in boarding school, learning about what is valued in a different model of society and growth. Families often can return to their gaau only once a year, for just a few days over Dasain, and sometimes not even that.
On a regular basis now, village communities are dealing with tragedies resulting from their family and village members taking labor jobs in the Middle East, facing debt or stolen funds from corrupt employment agencies, separation for many years at a time, terrible accidents on the job, and sometimes even death or disappearances of loved ones. The common story is: “Of course we don’t want to leave the village. The village is peaceful and beautiful, our family and our home is here. But we cannot make money growing corn and millet, raising goats. How will we sustain ourselves?” The community model for Nepal’s villages is changing, and the roots of these communities, while previously deeply tied to the land, are being jeopardized from all sides.
Of course, there is a middle ground between the poverty-haunted subsistence model of Nepal’s past, and the mass exodus and industrialization of Nepal’s present, and possibly future. For many, this vision of balance is born from a sort of “improved” version of traditional agriculture: sustainable, integrated, organic food production focused on building soil fertility and increasing adaptability to climate changes by diversifying resilient crops like local grains and perennial vegetables. Farmers can also bring income by integrating high-value, marketable crops like fruit and nut trees and cash crops (cardamom, tea, coffee, spices, hardwoods), by using local natural resources to produce value-added goods, or by starting production for things like mushrooms and herbal medicinal products.
At the core of sustainable agriculture is a commitment to using the resources that are already available (climate, nutrients, water), minimizing dependency on external inputs like imported fertilizers. It’s also concerned with the health of the people eating the food, maximizing nutrition and prohibiting chemicals that cause damage in the human blood stream and create cancer in the body. It means tailoring farming systems specifically to each piece of land, picking and choosing techniques and crops that work, instead of the blanket approach of conventional agriculture, which in the end proves detrimental for people, place, and economy. Programs geared toward developing organic and sustainable agriculture are increasing, but reversing decades of Green Revolution teaching will take time, especially for the middle-aged generation.
Beyond agriculture, there are underlying social movements that will dictate shifts in Nepal’s future. Finding a balance between education and rural village life, between a market-driven economy and environmental protection, between crop yield and human health, between livelihood and happiness will be essential for Nepal to locate its own unique stance on each of these seeming polarities, in order to see, ultimately, where it is headed.
Cover photo: A woman harvesting rice in autumn in Kirtipur. Samantha Day