Agriculture is a major contributor to Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is perhaps the most repeated statement in papers and articles describing Nepal´s economy. Another equally recurring sentence is that the vast majority of Nepali population derives their livelihood from subsistence agriculture. Well, these are the facts and hence such assertions are pretty obvious. The state has tried many programs to uplift the agriculture sector, which, in fact, has also received due importance in the periodic plans. Different non-governmental agencies are involved in these efforts as well. But food imports are increasing, and the share of agriculture in GDP is declining.
How come this sector cannot progress despite such efforts from the government and non-government sector? It is high time that we rethought whether strategies and approaches adopted to boost the agriculture sector are contextual and relevant to our farmers, who practice subsistence agriculture. Similarly, do government policies and programs actually support small farmers? These are a few questions that need inquiry not only from production perspective per se, but also from politico-ecological and economic perspectives, as well.
Since Nepal has witnessed various neo-liberal policy reforms in agriculture under different banners like structural adjustments, deregulation, etc, it is time to interrogate who has benefited from these policies, and at whose expense? These policies primarily advocate according primacy to the market and confining the state to the role of a mere facilitator rather than an intervening agency. Well, it might sound realistic in countries where farmers have acres of land and are wealthier enough to drive high octane petrol guzzling SUVs, but in a country like ours, it is simply no more than discounting the reality. These market fundamentalist ideas sound quite interesting to read, but it is important to identify and analyze the broader global economy, the hegemonic powers, and competitors, which are not only players but are also the rulemakers in agriculture and trade, globally.
Turning back to the domestic reality especially with regard to the agriculture sector, I feel that there has been a mismatch between the policies and interventions undertaken so far and the ground reality. Our strategic directions have some shortcomings that have impeded agricultural growth and competitiveness. In mainstream agriculture, let aside the global market forces, we are not even in a position to compete with neighboring India. It seems quite absurd talking of penetrating the global market. However, things are not that depressing! There are potential areas where we do have our competitive advantage, and organic is one among those.
For the organic sector to grow and realize its potential, the government must have a clear framework and action-points that entail its support in input supply, production, post-production, and marketing.
It is to be noted at the outset that organic is not only a high-end consumers´ commodity. It is also a cost-saving option for countries likes ours, where more than 80 percent farmers rely on low external inputs, and vast majority of agricultural land remains virtually organic. Opting for organic production and supply can improve not only the livelihoods of small-holder farmers, but it can also contribute to enhanced economy. The question, then, is: Are the government policies and strategies designed with this reality in view? Why does the Agriculture Perspective Plan (APP) excessively prioritize chemical only fertilizers and government subsidy on the same is higher than more sustainable and eco-friendly options? How can it be a pro-poor strategic intervention? Where does the subsidized fertilizer end up? Who are the ones to gain from such subsidies? Obviously, it is the relatively well-off and big farmers who gain from such policies.
But it is the poor adjoining farmers who ultimately pay the price. They are exposed to pollution and stand to lose the most from resource-base degradation. The poor small-holder farmers who can barely manage to feed themselves are not in a position to think of applying chemical fertilizers. The other interesting facet is the promotion of chemical fertilizers in areas which have largely remained organic by default. While there are calls for eco-friendly commodities, we are pushing the farmers back into the vicious cycle of chemical usage, soil degradation and low productivity. Therefore, we must assess how progressive our strategies and interventions have really been thus far.
Neo-liberal pundits stress on the need of an unfettered free market operating on the logic of demand and supply. State intervention is largely regarded as unwanted and unnecessary. These pundits argue that market itself is capable of generating broader social and economic well-being. However, we have more than enough evidence to prove that market alone is neither able nor sufficient to enlarge the social and economic capital. Acid rain, ozone depletion, and global warming undermine the market fundamentalist notion and unravel how the market alone has failed to address the issues of broader well-being and social justice. As a matter of fact, we cannot rely on the market to care about those issues. Thus, in the agriculture sector – particularly in countries like ours – relying on the market to stimulate the production of organic commodities is nothing more than a daydream. Hence, organic sector deserves support from the government. It should be clear at the outset that organic production at scale is not a mere spontaneous change; it should rather be a deliberate movement to be initiated and owned by the government. A number of studies have indicated how instrumental the government support has been in promoting eco-friendly organic agriculture.
For the organic sector to grow and realize its potential, the government must have a clear framework and action-points that entail its support in input supply, production, post-production, and marketing. Where to start? The question of power dynamics and interplay comes here. The first step for deliberate organic movement should start from educating producers on organic technology and making the organic inputs readily available, which might entail an overhaul or adjustment of the government extension system. Even the skeptics know that governments are often tempted for accreditation and certification before organic production actually kicks off. Well, it is all related to the power dynamics that operates in an economy. Normally, farmers are quite miserable in exercising power to make the governments realign their extension system and support for organic production, while the certifying companies who have the financial and other facets of power are in a better position to influence the governments.
So, if the government is really committed to promote organic sector in Nepal, mere encouragement in policies in not at all enough. If there is a genuine interest in promoting organic agriculture, it should start with formulating a domestic policy or framework that should clearly articulate the role of government and private sector in input supply, production, post-production and marketing. Since organic agriculture demands long-term investment in land, land tenure and reform policies also play an important role. It requires assessment of broader policies (not only agriculture) to determine the extent to which the domestic policy environment is supportive to organic. The other important issue is the incentive to organic produces for their contribution and stewardship toward nature and environment. Unless and until there are positive discriminations in place for such producers, the environment polluters will be reaping what is called in economics the "perverse incentives".