NEPAL: Dependence on Rice Adds to Food Crisisby kenneth ( )
KATHMANDU, Aug 29 (IPS) - Every year, around June, people living in the impoverished western half of this mountainous country suffer from food scarcity. This year was no different, except that the problem got aggravated by increasing dependence on rice flown in rather than locally grown food grains.
Earlier, people in the mountainous western areas used to grow a variety of grain including finger millet, buckwheat and barley, but the situation changed due to lack of productive land, loss of farming skills and knowledge and changing dietary habits.
Low productivity of millet, buckwheat and barley and higher demand for rice have forced people here to depend almost entirely on the state-run Nepal Food Corporation (NFC). But this comes at prices that the locals are unable to afford.
Airlifting one quintal of rice to Humla in mid-west Nepal costs around Rs. 11,000 (160 US dollars), says Sunder Raj Sharma, deputy general manager of NFC. "It takes nearly a year to send about 300 quintals of rice by road to Humla."
The situation worsened this year due to strikes and bad weather, said Sharma. "We do have a plan of action to tackle this scarcity in remote districts but it all depends on road conditions, as supplying these stuffs by air is just too expensive."
Even if the NFC manages to send supplies to these districts, people do not have the money to buy the grain. Media reports have talked of local people having to sell their utensils to buy rice from the NFC depots.
Every year, the government has to deal with food crises from June till September in 18 remote areas with no or poor accessibility. NFC has been providing food supplies to the remote areas since its establishment in 1957. People in these remote districts have demanded a total of 90,200 quintals of rice this year. These districts include Bajura, Bajang, Darchula, Rukum, Rolpa, Kalikot and Achham.
Lack of agriculture workers (a majority of young Nepalese go abroad to work as labourers) and a huge dietary shift from coarse grains and low-value food grain to ‘superior’ varieties such as rice is responsible for the food shortage.
Dr. Aruna Uprety, a public health specialist, terms this a ‘rice crisis’ rather than a ‘food crisis’. Recalling her field trips to Mugu and Dolpa districts, she said that people in those areas have stopped harvesting traditional crops such as buckwheat, barley, finger millet and are now relying heavily on rice. "There is this misconception among the people that rice is the standard food compared to other food grains," says Uprety. "They regard millet and barley as low quality food and prefer rice instead."
Western Nepal’s population is already grappling with poor nutrition. According to the ‘Small Area Estimate of Poverty, Caloric intake and Malnutrition in Nepal’ carried out in 2006 by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Bank, in the hilly areas of western Nepal more than 62 percent of children are stunted and at least 45 percent are underweight.
Purna Chandra Wasti, senior food researcher at the department of food technology and quality control said the demand for rice has increased through the false notion that it is a culturally superior grain and that eating it is prestigious. One result of this obsession with rice is that nutritionally valuable grains like foxtail millet are now on the verge of extinction.
"There is an urgent need for investment in production, seed and agriculture research, promotion and commercialisation," said Wasti. "For food security there is a need of crop diversification."
In response to the crises, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in partnership with WFP and Nepal’s agriculture ministry is now putting in money to provide technical support in the food-deficit districts to improve farming, not only of rice seeds but seeds of other crops like barley, maize, millet and wheat, along with potatoes and other vegetables. At present, FAO covers 16 districts benefiting 74,795 households.
Dilip Karki, senior agronomist at the FAO, said that these interventions are designed to extend the food availability period. "FAO aims to support the government’s seed production system in the districts instead of transporting seeds there.’’
"We partnered with FAO to provide improved wheat and vegetable seeds to nearly 30,000 drought-affected families receiving life-saving food through WFP food for work projects," said country representative Richard Ragan. "These improved seeds, coupled with WFP quick impact projects like small-scale irrigation, will help families in living in drought-prone areas of mid- and far-western Nepal improve their longer-term food security."