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Seeds of change: Nepal's local crops raise hopes for food security
Farmer Radha Pokhrel tends to her crops in Arghakhanchi, Nepal, January 8, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mukesh Pokhrel
What’s the context?
Could growing more traditional and indigenous crops help Nepal boost food sustainability as climate change worsens?
- Farmers encouraged to sow indigenous and traditional seeds
- Demand for local produce is rising due to health benefits
- Experts say effort can boost resilience to climate change
KATHMANDU - At his shop in Nepal's capital, Tilak Dhakal sells traditional crops that have vanished from many of the country's markets: sorghum, millet, buckwheat flour and mustard, among others.
With products sourced from around rural Nepal, the shop is part of a drive to promote local crops that could not just help boost food security and improve people's health, but build the country's resilience to worsening climate change impacts.
"We have given priority to indigenous crops, which (have been) produced in Nepal ... for hundreds of years," said Dhakal, founder of the 'Raithane Koseli Ghar' initiative, which loosely translates as 'Indigenous Souvenir Shop' in Nepali.
"We are not just doing business. Our priority is also to conserve indigenous crops, knowledge, and seeds," added the 61-year-old, a retired conservationist.
Launched four years ago, the project not only procures and sells such produce but provides technical support to farmers to grow traditional crops - with the support of local government - and raises awareness among both consumers and agriculturalists.
It now has nearly 50 backers and $2.5 million in investment - with support from environmentalists, businesses and banks - and is fast gaining growers and buyers, according to Dhakal.
Demand for local crops is rising in cities from Bhaktapur to Kathmandu, he said, due to the perceived health benefits and superior quality and flavour compared with commercial hybrid crops, grown with seeds bred from differing varieties.
About 20 shops such as Dhakal's selling produce native to Nepal have opened in the capital in recent years, he added.
Kathmandu resident Tara Ghimire said she buys buckwheat and millet flour from Dhakal's shop - and was happy to pay the premium - because she believed local crops were better for her.
"Local crops are tasty and healthy," the 45-year-old said. "Money is nothing compared to health."
Despite the growing popularity, local crop varieties are scarce across Nepal as farmers tend to favour hybrid varieties that are more productive in good conditions and therefore more profitable.
Traditional knowledge about local seeds - and efforts to protect them - have waned in many rural communities, according to several residents.
About 40% of Nepal's local seed varieties have disappeared from the country's mountain region, where many indigenous crops from barley to buckwheat were once common, said Ram Prasad Mainali, a scientist at the National Agriculture Research Center.
However, as the farming sector increasingly suffers weather shocks - from worsening drought to rising heat - agriculture experts say investing in native crops could act as a buffer and ultimately ensure the country's food supply is more sustainable.
"Local and traditional crop varieties are more resilient to changing environmental conditions as they have developed over time through natural selection and adaptation," said Sabnam Shivakoti, joint secretary at the agriculture ministry.
Lack of local seeds
However, there is hardly a widespread desire to return to farming traditional crops, in a country where 80% of the population of 28 million rely on agriculture to make a living.
In Nepal's Rupandehi district, in western Lumbini province, two farmers said that local varieties of rice - like Basmati and Saro - had been completely replaced by hybrid varieties.
"We want productivity and return on our investment, and local crops don't give a return," said farmer Ramesh Sharma.
Sharma said he previously harvested about 240kg of rice a year using native seeds, but had more than tripled his annual yields since switching entirely to hybrid seeds in 2022.
About 125km away - in Arghakhanchi district - farmer Nirmala Pandey explained how she used to grow local varieties of crops such as corn, cucumber and okra at home until 15 years ago.
Now, those seeds have become extinct in the area, she said.
"The seeds of all crops can be bought in the store and so we started planting hybrid crops of which the seeds come from outside Nepal," Pandey added.
Losses of indigenous crops across Nepal have also been fuelled by internal migration from rural areas to cities, with large swathes of previously fertile land once sown with local seeds now left barren, conservation officials said.
Between 25-40% of cultivated land in the country is barren, according to the government's Center for Crop Development and Agro Biodiversity Conservation.
Food crisis fears
The growing scarcity of native crops has raised concerns about food security and possible food shortages, or even crises, in the future.
Pitambar Shrestha, project manager at Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (LI-BIRD) - an NGO - said that if India and other nations were to stop exporting seeds to Nepal, it could struggle to grow enough crops for its people.
"If we depend on imported seeds, we may be in a crisis in the future," he said. "For example, we are facing a crisis of chemical fertiliser due to the war between Russia and Ukraine."
Nepal in 2007 set up the Genebank to conserve local seeds, and now has more than 6,170 different varieties including rice, barley and wheat, according to its head Balakrishna Joshi.
Seeds in the Genebank can germinate for 200 years, he said, adding that it was vital to "conserve local crops for upcoming generations and researchers" and for the benefit of Nepal's economy.
Dhakal of Raithane Koseli Ghar said it was "very difficult" to find indigenous crops across rural Nepal, and that the project had to "collect on a small scale from various places".
Yet Dhakal said that since the opening of his Kathmandu shop he had seen a growing trend of villages planting local seeds.
He highlighted a farmer in Nuwakot district who increased his native rice output more than eightfold - to 2,500kg - in 2021 after Dhakal had paid a premium for it the year before.
"I visited 50 districts in rural areas and I heard the same from everyone: they do not benefit from local crops," he said. "But if they get a good price, they will plant local crops."
(Reporting by Mukesh Pokhrel, Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Laurie Goering)
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