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We live in an age of uncertainty and the coronavirus pandemic has jolted us into this realisation more harshly than any other event in recent history. What many considered a ‘normal’ existence has been thrown asunder; a microscopic virus has laid bare the fragility of our current social, economic, and environmental systems. There is a likelihood that Covid-19 may never go away. Even if we learn to tame it with a vaccine in the near future, scientists predict that new waves of pandemics are likely to occur with increasing frequency. Our scenario now compels us to reevaluate the entire mindset on which our lifestyles and economies are based, shaping our individual and collective aspirations as well as our relationship with other humans and the natural world.
Survival for many has become more precarious than ever before and we believe this is an opportune time for humanity at large to recalibrate by bringing our attention back to the most fundamental issues. And food is one such issue. Food insecurity has remained a perennial problem in developing countries, but has also loomed as a potential threat over the entire globe. This condition is made more complex by how methods of food production have changed drastically over the last century, from the reduction of human labour in the agricultural sector, to increased reliance on chemicals and technology as well as an overall shift to monocultural farming practices. Aside from impacting human health and economy, such changes also significantly impact cultures while altering fragile ecological processes.
While working in the field of food sustainability, we have often reflected on what it takes to build public resilience, especially in a way that enables a nation or community to face crises like the current one with more confidence and clarity. For Nepal, heavy reliance on remittances and sectors like tourism — both of which depend on a globalised economy and transnational mobility — have further exacerbated the economic toll of the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the course of the lockdown, Nepali migrant workers from within urban centres in Nepal and beyond returned home, often in desperation, often on foot. When asked why, many who suddenly found themselves jobless and penniless said that at least back in their villages they would get to eat.
From even before the pandemic, we have seen a trend of people revisiting traditional styles of small-scale family farming. Contrary to the developmental narrative of the last 50 or so years that has emphasised the need to shift away from subsistence farming in order to tackle the pressing issues of hunger and poverty, the current pandemic has shown that this rudimentary and inefficient system may also be the most resilient. And its resilience extends beyond its capacity to hold families together through a health crisis like Covid or an economic crisis: it also carries the potential to enable us to defend ourselves from the far more worrying ecological crisis that is stealthily unfolding in this era.
This is not to say that family farming at the subsistence level is the go-to solution for all our problems. Even though the kheti-kisani practiced by farmers in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal allowed them to be self-reliant for centuries, a changing landscape of knowledge and economy has expanded people’s needs — especially in areas such as health and education — making a 100 percent reliance on family farms impractical. Additionally, given that densely populated cities hold a large number of people who fulfil their nutritional needs not as producers but dependent consumers, and given the unavailability of adequate land for urban families to even contemplate growing their needs’ worth of food by themselves, subsistence farming does not appear entirely feasible. Nevertheless, reexamining the practice of subsistence farming and drawing lessons from it seem like worthwhile tasks at this point in our history.
Subsistence farming, as practiced by our ancestors, had to fulfil a diverse range of needs; it provided not just food, but also fibre, fertiliser, fodder, and medicinal herbs. Farming practices, therefore, had to be mixed, integrated, and very diversified. Multiple crops were simultaneously grown on the same plot of land, with crop rotation over the course of a year. Most families reared animals in their farms, using waste from one to nourish the other. In the current scenario, this system presents more possibilities than limitations.
Transitioning trends in agriculture, especially based on models from western countries such as the US, have focused on viewing farming purely in terms of profit, with a focus on efficiency, productivity, yield, and surplus. Driven by a capitalist-industrial agenda, this approach has a linear rather than cyclical relationship to food production, and needs market interventions for both supply of resources and disposal of waste material. In this sense, it is a truly non-regenerative form of agriculture. Subsistence farming, on the other hand, certainly produces lower yield, but it also allows farmers to cope with market uncertainties and disruptions in supply and demand chains for both inputs and outputs. Such a farming practice encourages farmers to generate inputs from within the farm, with the focus not on economic gains alone, but on the supply of health and nourishment of family members through food and nutrition. It also helps preserve local flavours, supporting the biocultural genome of a particular region. Most essentially, such practices do not deplete ecological cycles and functions. By following natural cycles and relying on seasonal variations to grow different crops, they can also help sequester carbon from the atmosphere.
As discussed earlier, along with offering food security and greater resiliency to farming families, such small-scale farms must also be able to produce some surplus for the market. At this point, there are hundreds of ways to improve and enhance the quantity as well as quality of subsistence-oriented family farms. From agroforestry to permaculture, from bio-char to carbon-rich farming, from crop-intensification to mixed cropping — models of robust and regenerative family farms are sprouting all over the world. There is already a trend of locally sourced food markets in the Kathmandu Valley, with rising demand for pesticide-free, organic fruits, and vegetables. But the very narrow and reductionist developmentalist agenda of the past 60 years has made a majority of farmers dependent on chemicals like pesticides and there is a general fear that productivity will plummet if they opt out of using them.
In reality, organically grown food can be more cost effective, as it does away with expensive chemical inputs. Some loss due to insects and pests is inevitable in a disturbed farm ecosystem that tries to shift to an organic system. But the experience of thousands of farmers across the world shows that if farms are given the time to restore an ecological balance in an environment free of chemicals, the loss from such damages gradually gets reduced. New innovations such as integrated pest management and the use of organic pesticides and insecticides have also been developed in recent years. A research conducted in Pokhara revealed that organic farming yields the best results when it is done at the scale of a watershed, reducing the impact of insects and pests, preventing chemical leaching, and helping produce surplus.
The irony is that many Nepali farmers appear uneducated, uninformed, or even suspicious about the numerous farming methods we mentioned above which can create surplus yield while ensuring greater self-reliance and a healthy and sustainable relationship with the land, especially as they were already using many of these practices before the influence of global developmental and market forces. Successive governments since the 1950s have pushed forth agricultural policies that encourage dependency rather than self-reliance, vilifying subsistence farming as a backward and inefficient system that has hindered national progress. In a bid to modernise Nepal, farmers were expected to reorient their aspirations, with able-bodied family members leaving their farms in search for non-farming ‘jobs’. Meanwhile, bikase-kheti was driven by the dream of generating more cash income at the family level and more export at the national level. In reality, Nepal’s dependence on food imports has risen sharply since the 1990s, with no significant export. Whereas we imported 41,000 metric tonnes of cereal annually over the period of 1986-1990, by 2017, we were importing 1.13 million metric tonnes. On the whole, considerations like health, nutrition, environment, and biocultural diversity in food have consistently been neglected by a GDP-preoccupied government.
With the combined pandemics of climate and coronavirus, we have come back full circle, with many of the poorest who have felt betrayed by the government returning home to their subsistence farms. Even under dilapidated conditions, these farms have offered more security than either their city jobs or relief packages doled out by the government. Commercial farming, on the other hand, has proven to be woefully unresilient. But the Covid-19 pandemic has come as a preview of a future rife with crises and commercial farms will prove to be even more vulnerable to climate related triggers that hit the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. Floods, landslides, downpours, droughts, hailstorms and more will damage crops, disrupt supply changes, alter patterns of demand, and attack the lifeline of Nepal’s farmers as the climate crisis worsens.
Nevertheless, compared to other countries, Nepal holds greater promise for becoming self-reliant as far as food and nutrition are concerned. But it will not happen by itself; we need to push beyond our current mental horizon and effect deep and far-reaching policy changes.
The benefits of small-scale family farms are hindered greatly by the unequal distribution of land. Nepal currently has many marginal and near-landless farmers. On average, a farming family needs at least 0.5 hectares (9.83 ropanis) of land to offer itself reasonable subsistence. Although estimates vary and data on landlessness is inconsistent, it is safe to assume that about 25 percent of families are considered to be landpoor, with ownership of less than 0.2 hectares (3.93 ropanis) of land on which they can barely produce enough food for more than three or four months a year. This problem is more acute for many Dalit and Janajati families. According to a civil society report, 36.7 percent of hill Dalits and 41.4 percent of Terai Dalits fall in this category. Meanwhile, upto 60 percent of very marginalised Janajatis like Santhals, Jhangads, Kisans, and Mundas are landpoor.
This data reveals the systemic inequality in Nepali society, where land ownership is tilted overwhelmingly on the side of upper-caste Hindus, and a large proportion of Dalit and Janajati families do not have access to land to even engage in subsistence levels of farming. To make matters worse, many belonging to the land-owning class, who are fully employed in non-farm jobs in Nepal or overseas, do not want to part with their land. Aside from having sentimental value, land is also considered one of the safest forms of investment in an economically and politically unstable country like Nepal, where successive governments have had a terrible track record of offering social security and shielding citizens from the shocks of economic and ecological disasters. And so the redistribution of land based on the true needs of poor, landless farmers, often coming from historically marginalised communities, is not something that will happen on its own.
Nepal’s reliance on its migrant labourers to sustain its own economic growth has come full circle to now haunt the nation. The nation chose to cash out on the desperation of a section of Nepali society that was struggling to make ends meet, readily sending them to work destinations that have repeatedly been called out for the human rights violations of workers. But it was obvious right from the beginning that this was not a sustainable way of boosting economic growth. Even though, quantitatively, many migrants have been earning relatively more money than what they would have earned had they remained in Nepal, they have done so by forsaking their wellbeing, dignity, and basic rights while working under harsh conditions. They have remained at the bottom of the rung, and hold the least decision-making power within the institutions or corporations they have worked for. Now, compelled to return home, many have come to realise that migrating for work was like jumping from the fire-pan into the fire.
Since the lockdown began, a large number of migrants working in Nepal or India returned to their village homes, where women, children, and the elderly have still kept their subsistence farms largely operational. People arriving from the Middle East and Malaysia will probably return to their farms as well. Of about 3.5 million Nepali migrants estimated to be living abroad (including in India), upto a million are desperate to come back home due to the pandemic, with about 127,000 set to arrive as soon as travel restrictions are lifted. Many who returned made a perilous journey back home, often by walking for days, and undergoing harsh, undignified, and unsafe treatment at quarantine centres, only to be stigmatised as they reached their villages. Some even lost their lives in the process. As disenfranchised migrants return from domestic and foreign destinations, they know that only a few will be fortunate enough to return to their previous jobs, even when the global economy recovers.
A dilemma exists for these migrants and for the larger nation: are these returnees to continue looking for employment opportunities in faraway markets, or is this the time to reclaim their agency over their own land, food and nutrition by walking on a path of self-reliance?
Existing political and socio-economic environments make it difficult for migrant workers to opt for the second choice and contribute to family farming. Migrant workers have returned in desperate conditions, often penniless — a brutal reality given that the whole point of migrating was to ensure some financial stability for their families. Will these returnees become a burden or an asset for their families? In order for them to effectively contribute to their farms, they need a wide range of support.
The big question now is how to help farmers become more self-reliant. We must shift away from the model of agro-industries and, instead, support small-time farmers and farming families so that they can reach slightly higher than subsistence levels — and contribute to the nutritional needs of a few non-producers — without destroying the biosphere or compromising their agency. It is unfortunate that the policy and incentive mechanisms employed by the government and donor agencies are guided by an assumption that smallholder farmers are less productive and cannot produce the surplus required for a growing population. Such a bias has been and continues to be detrimental to the goal of making Nepal self-reliant in food and nutrition.
The government must prioritise such farmers and discourage the import of food from international markets by levying higher taxes on imports. Additionally, it must reevaluate the current rationale behind its agricultural subsidies, and direct funds to help small-scale farmers who wish to adopt alternative farming practices such as permaculture, agroforestry, bio-char, organic, and ecological farming. Simultaneously, the government must also address the current dependency on the international market for farming equipment, chemicals, and seeds — all of which have limited the average smallholding farmer’s ability to make choices that may prioritise wellbeing, sustainability, and sovereignty. In the absence of such market-dependent inputs, the government can leverage its funds on protecting indigenous/vernacular/heirloom seeds and multiple species of grains that can shield small-scale farmers from economic and ecological shocks. Educating farmers under a non-neoliberal agricultural framework, where local and indigenous knowledge is given the dignity it deserves, is a form of empowerment that can have a profound impact on the future of farming.
Our national plans and policies must also recognise the strong relationship between agriculture, social justice, and equity. Land ownership, as it stands, is a big obstacle to equitable access to farming land and opportunities, especially for the most disadvantaged and historically marginalised communities. Only through an overhaul of land-tenure practices, including the utilisation of all lands including fallow land, which is estimated to be 30 percent of all farmland, will most farming families be able to generate subsistence-level yields. Policies directed at communities who live on the edge of forests and conservation zones also need to stop demonising them. Instead, increased access to community land, and legal access to forestland, where such communities can practice agroforestry, will contribute to levelling the playing field.
Given that our recommendations encourage slow growth, even the deceleration of farmers’ income, a strong welfare system that offers free and efficacious healthcare and education services is desirable. It can reduce people’s anxieties over earning to meet some of these basic needs.
As a developing nation, Nepal has gotten mired in the global capitalist market, which has offered few benefits but many liabilities. The shift to a non-farming, remittance-dependent economy has reduced poverty significantly, but this hasn’t necessarily made people less vulnerable to shocks and uncertainties. This reflects a multidimensionality of poverty that many of our national plans and policies have not taken into account. From the 1990s onwards, the neo-liberal idea that food security can be met through trade and purchasing power has prevailed. Consequently, people with good income have been able to make nutritional purchases in the international market, and local farmers have continued to suffer negligence. Integration into a capitalist global market has only served to strip Nepal of much of its ability to make decisions about how to support small-scale farmers and ensure their sovereignty.
To wean Nepal from neoliberalism’s poisonous bosom is a radical step, but by laying bare the loopholes in a globalised economy, Covid-19 has not only highlighted the benefits of slowing down, but compelled us to reconsider self-reliance more strongly than at any other point in recent history.
Jagannath Adhikari Jagannath Adhikari is a researcher in the field of agriculture and food security.
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