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Bishow Parajuli: Food Security Blueprint of Nepal

Parajuli suggests developing and adapting a food system approach to ensuring food production, with supplies and access guaranteed at all times to everyone. “There must be a strong governance structure to coordinate implementation and review, and to monitor the progress in program deliveries/outcomes,” he stresses. - Editor

Bishow Parajuli: Food Security Blueprint of Nepal

Bishow Parajuli brings four decades of experience in development, humanitarian affairs, diplomacy, fund raising, and management in several countries in Asia, Middle East and Africa, including World Food Program (WFP) Headquarters in Rome as Chief of Staff and Director, Resource Mobilization and Government Relations. He has served as WFP Representative and Country Director to India, Yemen and Egypt and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Representative in Myanmar and Zimbabwe.

Food security is a pathway to peace, with rising food insecurity a trigger for instability and conflicts. Ensuring access to adequate nutritious food for everyone is an important part of a country’s responsibilities for the wellbeing of the citizens. The government must, as a priority, increase its support to agriculture development and strengthen livelihood opportunities to improve food security. In this write-up, Parajuli assesses the global and national scenario of food security.


Food security is national security

Increased land use for agriculture and rapid rise in crop yields over the years has resulted in massive increase in food crop production worldwide. Despite this, there are 850m people who do not have access to adequate food and some 345m people face high levels of food insecurity. Conflicts, climate change and supply chain disruption are causing food prices to constantly rise globally, and poor households are unable to access food, facing threats in their dietary needs and nutrition for their children. 

With continued decline in household food production, more and more Nepalis are forced to buy food, and the country is moving towards increased dependence on imports. This is a concerning trend in a country where 60-70 percent of the population are supposed to be engaged in agriculture. Nepal stands high in the global hunger index, with 36 percent of children stunted. Close to a million-hectares of land is estimated to be left fallow due to shortage of manpower because of migration of youth seeking employment abroad and movement of people from the hills to the Tarai. 

Crisis on farmers

Year after year, farmers are worried about delayed rainfall due to changes in weather patterns and are unable to plant paddy crops on time. The shortage and high prices of fertilizers and availability of seeds is a recurring issue every year despite farmers raising the alarm about being unable to fetch reasonable prices for their produce, making crop farming less and less attractive. 

Most worrying is the lack of meaningful support to farmers and comprehensive interventions to increase local production, productivity and impactful programs.


At the historic UN General Assembly Summit in Sept 2015, 193 member countries (including Nepal) agreed to transform the world with a 2030 agenda, focussing on Planet, People, Prosperity, Peace and Partnership. This agenda which came into effect on 1 Jan 2016, aimed at the successful delivery of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. With seven years left for the completion of the Global Goals, will Nepal be able to achieve any of these 17 goals, including the elimination of all forms of hunger?  

At a recent Food Security Summit Plus 2 in Rome, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal stated that “It is important that we address the bottlenecks in every sector for making a leap towards zero hunger”. He also stressed, “Transforming the food system is crucial not only for food security but also for the realization of all Sustainable Development Goals”. The PM is right—food security is affected by at least 11 Sustainable Development Goals. There is an urgent need to translate the PM’s statements into action with leadership, commitment, program activities and financing, so that all bottlenecks in improving food security to achieving zero hunger are addressed. Unfortunately, there is more talk than action. Frequent changes in the leadership in the Agriculture Ministry at the political level makes matters worse. 

Government commitments

The budget for 2023/24 makes a commitment for a national campaign for self-reliance in agriculture with an increase in food production from 10.7m tons to 14m tons and a reduction in import by 30 percent by the end of 2024. This is clearly unrealistic, within the time frame and in the absence of inadequate budget allocation, shortage of key agricultural inputs, lack of irrigation facilities and plans to mitigate weather challenges. 

The Agricultural Development Strategy (2015 to 2035) developed to modernize agriculture and promote agricultural growth, focussing on production, processing and marketing was a game changing plan. The PM’s Agriculture Modernization Program is linked to the strategy covering a 10-year period ending in 2023. There have been serious challenges in implementation of the program along with poor alignment with the country’s move to a federal system. With serious reviews there are opportunities to learn from these efforts to improve future strategies and interventions. 

Challenges and threats

The timely availability and high prices of fertilizers and seeds is a recurring problem. High interest rates and difficulties in accessing financial support limits farmers’ ability to enhance diversification and increase productivity. Climate change with increasing shifts in rainfall patterns such as delays in rainfalls, high intensity of rain during a short period and reduced or localized limited rain, is a rising threat to agriculture and food security. These trends are emerging all over the Tarai, the food basket of Nepal. In July/Aug 2023, there were reports of extreme weather and a long period of dry spells. It is understood that some eight districts in Tarai have suffered from delayed rain with an overall estimated shortfall in paddy of 15-20 percent in 2022/23. Over dependence on rainfalls and absence of irrigation facilities makes agriculture highly vulnerable. 

In absence of reasonable returns and unattractiveness, less and less youth are engaged in the agriculture sector, who continue to seek employment abroad and move from the hills to Terai, also causing serious shortages of labor and families are leaving their lands fallow in hill regions. It is reported that there is close to a million hectares of land uncultivated in the hill districts. There are also increasing reports of animals such as monkeys, wild boars and elephants’ threats to food crops in various parts of the country, most probably due to the animals’ habitats being encroached upon. An updated national strategy to deal with this menace and support to farmers is desperately needed.  

Our crops situation

It is estimated that Nepal currently produces 10.5m tons of cereals (5.5m tons of rice, 2.7m tons of maize, 2m tons of wheat and around 0.3m tons of other crops such as millets) with an estimated supply gap of around 2m tons of paddy for this year. The decline in production and consumption of traditional foods such as millets and maize and increasing consumption of rice and an increased import of grains to supplement domestic production are of concern with the risks of over dependence in import and mismatch efforts against the climate adaptation strategy. 

Besides high costs of agricultural inputs, low productivity in all three major cereal crops (Paddy (2.9 mtn/ha), wheat (2.2 mtn/ha and maize 2.25 (mtn/ha)) have drastically reduced farmers’ profitability. Furthermore, with a decrease in farm sizes, there are challenges in the economy of scale in modernization and corresponding profitability of farming in Nepal.  

Neighbor support

India is the main source of supplies of food commodities to Nepal. When India announces restrictions on global food exports, there is obviously concern about sudden food price rise at the local markets across Nepal, in absence of price stabilization measures established in the country. It is often the case that even in most cases of export ban, India makes special consideration for close neighboring countries such as Nepal, and regular supplies are maintained. Meanwhile, consumers are obliged to pay higher prices due to speculative steps by the traders and in the absence of government intervention. 

Millets (Kodo, finger millet and bajra) are nutritious and are adaptable to harsh climates and grow well in the mountain regions under rainfed conditions, but its cultivation is reported to be declining. 2023 was declared as the international year of millet. Nepal should have taken advantage of these international and regional efforts, (particularly by India) to promote millet cultivation and their use in our diets. There is continued concern among farmers that various existing government programs are not working with multiple shortcomings in implementation. The absence of a credible monitoring and impact assessment system makes it difficult to formally measure specific outcomes and value additions from these programs. 

Supporting vulnerable communities 

The WFP in Nepal’s recent survey findings indicate that about 4.26m people eat insufficient diets. There are also region-wide disparities in household food consumption, with the highest level in Karnali Province consuming an inadequate diet (22.5 percent), followed by Sudurpaschim Province (16.9 percent). Overall, 45.4 percent of children between six to 23 months of age did not meet the minimum recommended dietary diversity, with the highest level in Karnali (52.3 percent), Sudurpaschim (51.7 percent) and Lumbini (51.4 percent). The survey also indicates decreased income among the daily wage laborers. Given that nearly 70 percent households are depending on the market as their main sources for food, continued rise in food prices and decrease in income is resulting in extreme negative consequences for poor and vulnerable households for their food security. 

A nationwide government run program provides school meals to students up to middle school levels in all government schools. This program provides only Rs 15 per student per day, which is inadequate for an impactful intervention. I was glad to witness recently in a school that funds allocated for school meals were supplemented by additional contributions from the municipality. Such measures should be introduced across the country. There is support through Food Management and Trading Company in far western food deficit districts such as Kalikot, Humla, Jumla and Dolpa to subsidize transport of rice for sale to poor households. Unfortunately, there are reports of major problems in availability of rice for poor households from these programs due to irregularities in supplies. Perhaps encouragement and support for consumption of locally grown food crops would be more effective than supplying rice at subsidized rates 

Success stories 

Despite the lack of adequate efforts to promote agriculture there are several success stories, predominantly due to individual and private sector engagements. The growth in dairy and poultry industries supported by the government are commendable. Visits to several milk collection centers and conversations with many dairy farmers in Nawalparasi, show impressive levels of government support and costs sharing arrangements, and increased private sector investments has led to significant improvement in milk production, processing and marketing, with the nation reaching close to self-sufficiency in milk. Unfortunately, dairy farming is being threatened by non-payment of money owed by the Dairy Development Cooperation and others to hundreds of thousands of dairy farmers. Similarly, sugarcane farmers have repeatedly raised their concern on nonpayment of dues owed by the sugarcane millers for several months, repeated over many years, with an increased dependence on import of sugar.  

There has been good growth in the poultry industry, in vegetable farming, piggery and goats farming, with successful efforts by individuals, who have returned from working abroad, with increased self-reliance on these products. 

The way forward

The central government, in cooperation with the provincial authorities, develop and implement ambitious plans and increase the budget, along with establishing strong leadership and governance structure to lead the agricultural sector. It is now an opportune moment for an independent and comprehensive review of the Agricultural Strategy and new phase of PM Agricultural Development Program to help increase production, productivity, processing and marketing of food crops, adaptation to climate change, and expansion of livestock, poultry, fishery, horticulture, olericulture and medicinal plants based on different agro-climatic zones. 

Develop a resilient and sustainable agriculture sector by promoting new opportunities, access to finance, and innovation for small-holder farmers, with climate information and preparedness. There should also be extensive efforts to increase national adaptive capacity to address widespread climate concern and delayed rainfall by promoting various adaptation and mitigation measures such as expansion in irrigation facilities, cultivation of indigenous rainfed crops, and diversification of livelihoods. 

Create resilient and food security solutions by protecting and improving the livelihood of vulnerable communities with safety nets and employment. Existing govt support programs need to be reviewed for their impact and accountability. There should also be a mechanism to update the list of households and Communities who are recipients of assistance. 

Develop and adapt a food system approach to ensuring food production, with supplies and access guaranteed at all times to everyone. There must be a strong governance structure to coordinate implementation and review, and to monitor the progress in program deliveries/outcomes and impacts with measures to mitigate failures or redirect unsuccessful programs, without political interference.

There should be measures to bring fallow lands into cultivation. Supporting small farmers on agriculture inputs, technical know-how and marketing of their produce will be critical. In this connection, there must be an increased effort in enabling women’s engagements in the production processes and increased value addition and engagement of private sectors. 

The key to successful improvement in the agricultural sector will require effective coordination and implementation of essential program activities, besides good policies, programs, and sufficient financing. There must be efforts to revisit Technical capacity within the agriculture sector to make sure the current structure and technical knowhow is capable of responding adequately. 

Seek partnerships to enhance agricultural sector productivity. India and China have extensive experiences in transforming their agriculture from food deficit to food surplus nations; much can be learned with expanded exchanges, cooperation and partnership with these countries. The WB/ADB and key bilateral donors and the UN system can offer specific know-how and funding support as needed.