ABC Landline Special Report: Development Agriculture in Nepal

Today’s Landline story focused on some of the Australian-funded agricultural projects in Nepal. The trip was organised and supported by the Crawford Fund, who have a commitment to showing the enormous impacts and benefits of agricultural projects in developing countries. This particular trip was the prize for Sean Murphy – winner of the 2016 Crawford Fund Food Security Journalism Award. The Crawford Funds support for increasing communications about the benefits of agricultural development projects to both local communities and to Australia is vital to the impacts of these projects being understood and valued. As stated by the Crawford Fund, “now more than ever, it’s important to communicate the impact of these projects that are supported by Australia, and demonstrate their benefit to Australia”. The 2017 Crawford Fund Food Security Journalism Award will be announced at their annual conference next week.

Development Agriculture

Communicating the enormous benefits of agricultural development projects is crucial to their continuation and support. “Science Diplomacy” is a field where Australia has much to offer, particularly in our region. But to secure the funding and resources for these projects requires the public to value the contributions that these projects make to both developing countries, and to Australia. As Andrew Campbell, the Chief Executive Officer of ACIAR says, “it’s not in Australia’s interest to have unstable countries who can’t feed themselves in our region”. These projects punch well above their weight for both developing countries and for Australia. Returns on investment in international agricultural research are in the order of 20-80%. But to keep the projects operating, people need to understand their importance, mutual value, and viability.

Agriculture is the largest source of income in developing countries. So by improving agriculture, there can be enormous effects on poverty alleviation. GDP growth generated by agriculture is four times more effective in reducing poverty than growth generated in other sectors (IFAD 2012). Just 1% increase in agricultural yields leads to a 0.6%-1.2% reduction in the number of people living below $1/day. ACIAR funds several agricultural development projects across developing countries. The program sends scientists and researchers to developing countries to help improve food security. Find out more about the work of ACIAR here.

ACIAR projects must balance the need for local farmers to continue feeding themselves, whilst also increasing production and incomes. Despite a lot of similarities, the outcomes of agriculture in developing countries are largely different to agriculture in many developed countries. One key difference is that developing country farmers often use production for subsistence, whereas the diets of farmers in many developed countries is comprised of bought produce. Consequently, diversification of production from grains to vegetables and proteins to dairy are required by smallhold farmers (to fill the pantry with everything needed), rather than a monoculture with which we may be more familiar.


Nepal is one of the poorest countries in world, and it is a country where agriculture is the backbone of the economy. Agriculture and forestry provide nearly 60% of jobs in Nepal and over one-third of GDP. However, Nepal is struggling to adequately feed its population with an estimated one-third of the population undernourished.

Nepal is one of 30 countries where ACIAR has ongoing projects. The Eastern Gangetic Plains of Nepal is a region with world’s highest concentration of rural poverty and also has a high dependence on agriculture for both food security and livelihoods. The region has significant potential to become a food bowl for the local region (and also much of Asia), but productivity and crop diversity remain low due to underdeveloped markets, limited expertise and extension services, labour shortages, inadequate infrastructure developments (particularly water resources) and knowledge of sustainable production processes. The projects by ACIAR involve improving productivity, profitability and sustainability of small farmers in rice-based systems across three countries in the EGP region.

Nepal is home to one of Australia’s oldest agricultural AID programs (did you know that AID stands for ‘Assistance in International Development’). The project started more than 40 years ago, and involves planting forestry plots which serve many purposes for the local community. The forests help to prevent erosion, which conserves precious Himalayan soils. The forests also provide a supply of timber, which has proven highly valuable in reconstruction efforts following the recent devastating Earthquake.

The forests provide an opportunity for agroforestry (see our earlier agroforestry post for more) to grow things like cardamom on the forest floor. This means farmers can get value out of the forests before the trees are cut down. Cardamom is a high value and low maintenance cash crop. The income earned from this form of agroforestry enables the farmers to fund education and medical expenses, buy food in times of food scarcity, and also to be reinvested for further agricultural production.

Australian AID Programs

Ian Nuberg from the University of Adelaide explains that until the 1960s there were fewer controls on the use of forests in the region. Later on however, people became worried about water from the Himalayas washing down and eroding the precious fertile soils. This concern caused the timber mill in the area to shut down. In 1995 the timber mill reopened with Australian AID funding, with 10% of profits being given to a local community fund. This also re-opened the plantation to strict government controls.

The project focuses on skills development, and passing down the challenging lessons and adaptation strategies Australian farmers have developed. An overall aim of the strategy is to turn the Eastern Gangetic Plains region into a food bowl for much of Asia.

Neal Menzies, the Dean of Agriculture at the University of Queensland, said on Landline today “look around, it’s a very fertile area… with the introduction of new technologies there can be enormous improvements of the amount of food coming out of the EGP”.

The challenge is to intensify agricultural production, but in a sustainable way. There is growing interest in Conservation Agriculture Based System Intensification (CASI). You can find out more about the project to reduce poverty through agriculture in an environmentally sustainable way here.

One way to do this is to grow an additional crop, such as mung beans. This involves shortening the time it takes to grow rice and wheat in a traditional 2 crop rotation, and enables more yield per unit area. Farmers are learning techniques such as directly drilling rice into paddocks before the monsoon season begins.

Another problem faced in Nepal is labour shortages. 10 million Nepalese people now live overseas as remittance workers. These workers are typically men who seek higher incomes abroad, and send large parts of their income to their families at home in Nepal. This means that the agricultural economy of Nepal is largely in the hands of women.

Labour shortages also mean that investing in technology is crucial to overcome manpower shortages. On Landline today, a local Nepalese farmer stated:

“before the machine we had to uproot the stubble… now this can be done in 5 minutes” –  Landline.

Further, the technological revolution of developing country agriculture is also coupled with the feminisation of agriculture. Landline showed how women in Nepal are now using new rice ‘transplantors’ to increase yields.

“Women are driving the change to a mechanised farming future in Nepal” – Landline.

New methods of production, such as cooperative farming are helping some of the untouchables (poorest of the poor) in Nepal, who are being given access to water and land for the first time. Solar powered pumps are drawing water from shallow wells to irrigate crops in the dry season, and establishing aquaculture is also proving a stable source of income. The experiences of Australia’s projects in Nepal show how Development Agriculture provides many opportunities to make a difference to people’s lives, and also creates food security for our region.

For more information, or to view the Landline episode, see here.

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