When you buy popcorn in a movie theatre, maize cobs from a street vendor and a meal which comes from processing maize as feed, we should be thankful to the farmers.
They are men and women who battle against the unpredictable weather and invasive insects and bring food from the field to our fork. I have been hearing that agriculture is the government’s priority since I was a child. The 6th five-year plan (1980-1985) focussed on attaining food self-sufficiently in the hills, including maize, but still, there is not much progress. The productivity of maize, the main cereal crop after rice and a promising cash crop, started increasing slowly and constantly after 1985. From 1.5 tons per hectare in 1985, productivity reached 1.6 tons in 1990/91 and 2.6 tons in 2018/19.
A recently released statistical information by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development (MoALD) shows that maize is grown on 954,000 hectares (25% of the total area of cereals), which was 758,000 ha in 1985.
In three decades of efforts, productivity has increased by around 1% every year. However, the overall demand for maize is expected to grow by 4-6% every year for the next 20 years. The major hindrance to growing more is an inefficient production system.
Maize is being used for feed, food, fuel and fibre. The increasing demand for maize comes from the growing need for poultry feed. Some 80% of maize consumption in Nepal is due to poultry and animal feed. The domestic production can meet only 30% of current demand. India exported 5 million tons of feed and maize seeds to Nepal in 2018/19.
Nepali farmers face problems of quality seed and fertiliser availability and a market for their produce. Besides, the reason for an inefficient production system is inadequate scientific and technological knowledge among the maize farming communities. Majority of the farmers still sow the local varieties not by preference, but due to the unavailability of quality seeds and lack of technical knowledge of hybrid maize production.
Nepal has developed and released 29 open-pollinated (improved through the selection and traditional plant breeding method) and five hybrids (developed through cross-pollination) maize varieties. To date, nearly all hybrid seeds are imported.
The bulk of maize grown areas (80.6%) lies in the hills and mountains, but their productivity is less than the national average.
So, is not the production and distribution of maize hybrid seeds by the National Maize Research Programme or extension mechanism of MoALD a failure? MoALD, Nepal Agriculture Research Council and PM’s Agricultural Modernisation Programme are the government’s three wings for maize development.
But they lack coordination among themselves. The government has a long history of top-down decision-making and very low participation of the local people in influencing policy decisions. It has instituted a wide range of policies and targets, where the recently announced target is to double agricultural production within the next five years (2018-2023). The question is, will it be achieved?
Not only doom and bloom but many interesting trends are emerging, and there are many opportunities lying to be tapped. For example, we could include winter maize under the rice-wheat system to reduce its import.
This requires less water compared to the usual rain-fed maize growing areas in summer. With the rise of the decentralised governance structure, each local government can have its agricultural policies based on local needs.
The government is promoting the collective farming model in agriculture through cooperatives, and farmers can take advantage of irrigation, agro-inputs, insurance, mechanisation and technological services. A few farmers from Chitwan and Kaski districts are already using this model.
Since the area under maize cannot be expanded and developing new farm technologies is expensive, productivity gaps across regions and among farmer groups can be narrowed more quickly using available technologies and extension services.
For this, dissemination of scientific research findings, including the best management practices in local languages, among farmers will be pivotal.
Farmers should also be encouraged to visit on-farm research trials on improved open-pollinated and hybrid varieties to motivate them to introduce similar practices in their fields. Research run by International Business Machines Corporation and Walmart on moving the process of food block chain from production to consumer level can be tracked in 2.2 seconds, which typically took seven days to trace the source of food in the past. We could develop similar technologies to track the supply chain of seed, fertiliser and maize products in the Nepali market and beyond.
Apps related to maize crop calendar, weather forecast, diagnosis of insect-pest, disease, nutrient deficiency from a photo (submitted by the farmer) can be developed. In fact, some of these apps are under testing and verification phases.
Approaches based on information and communication technologies (ICTs) can be harnessed as a cost-effective way to reach farmers and help in Nepal’s food security. And let’s bring in the youths as technological innovators and agri-preneurs in maize production.
Photo credit: Ratna Sagar Shrestha/THT