Seed The Future

Researchers record germination of Soyabean seeds at NARC's Seed Science and Technology Division. Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha

Researchers record germination of Soyabean seeds at NARC’s Seed Science and Technology Division. Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha

On Wednesday, as a thunderstorm brewed in the sky above, laborers quietly continued working on various construction projects on going in the expansive Nepal Agriculture Research Council (NARC) campus. At the main gate, the rusting white signboard that said Nepal Agriculture Research Council (NARC) in bold red type was gone, and a concrete structure built in its place. But for now, it is just a cement structure with no paint or signage.

This week, Nepal marked a milestone for what should be one of the country’s most critical institutions: NARC celebrated its 21st Anniversary. If you walk into the lobby of any of NARC’s buildings, you can tell it really has been 21 years. To see evidence of 2012, however, one can walk past the Potato Research building and find the Seed Science and Technology Division’s building.

There, in the tiny space shared for research and offices, the future of Nepal’s agriculture germinates. Jwala Bahracharya, who earned her Masters in Seed Technology from the University of Edinburgh before earning a PhD from Bangor University in Wales, heads the Division. After spending 20 years working in this field for the Nepali Government she is, by virtue of her position, academic background and professional experience, one of the country’s most important seed scientists.

“I’m quite glad that in the last 2-3 years, our department has really seen a renewed sense of interest with more resources being committed to us,” she said smiling. But what of the other years? NARC was established in Nepal with the help of USAID in the late 1980s. It was a logical follow up to their assistance in helping establish Nepal’s first Agriculture college, Rampur, in the mid-1980s.

Earlier in the week officials from USAID gathered in the office of David Atteberry, the Mission Director, to discuss their Agriculture programs in Nepal. A highlight? Continued emphasis on Institution Building to make developing agriculture in Nepal sustainable.

“When we think about sustainability as a mission, we are thinking in terms of institutional sustainability. So what’s better? USAID making a decision about what fertilizer to use, or to have Nepalis trained in a Nepali institution to figure out what works best within the country’s Agriculture context?” explained Luis E. Guzman, Feed The Future Team Leader for USAID. It’s something that the agency has clearly emphasized on through the years.

But for many years the NARC campus housed buildings of an institution rather than shine as an example of Institution Building. Marginalized and politicized, the Research institute seemed to be just surviving. Even a few good projects they managed to develop somehow failed to move into the large-scale use for which they were developed. The political and business interest in Agriculture today, though, is perhaps unmatched in recent memory.

In the first two months of 2012 the Government of Nepal has agreed to scale up it’s Agriculture budget by significant amounts, and the World Bank helped FNCCI host a 3-day seminar on commercializing Nepal’s agro-sector. Add to all of this the looming end of Nepal’s Agriculture Perspective Plan (APP) in 2015, and the drafting of the new Agriculture Development Strategy (APS) that began last year.

In speaking with USAID, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and NARC, one can get a glimpse of the direction in which Nepal’s agriculture sector might be headed.

USAID Nepal beneficiaries in Western Nepal are happy about improved seed varieties that produce bountiful yields. Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha

USAID Nepal beneficiaries in Western Nepal are happy about improved seed varieties that produce bountiful yields. Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha

Extension Services:
A major failure in developing Nepal’s agriculture sector has been the weak extension services that farmers have had to deal with.

“In my opinion, the APP could have looked a little bit more on infrastructure to deliver services to farmers,” Kenichi Yokoyama, the Nepal Country Director the Asian Development Bank said. “They totally relied on the Government systems and in the mean time the system moved to a highly decentralized model. So the extension workers were shifted from Departments to Districts. The connection between the center and the farmers were not necessarily working.”

Back at USAID, its Mission Director said: “In the earlier days in Agriculture, we spent a lot more time in long term institution building. Today there is a much more of a reliance and focus for the Private sector to do a lot of the service delivery, to be a much more engaged partner.”

Over at the World Bank the broken Extension Services is seen as a problem that directly affects NARC. “What we did was provide technical assistance with their vision paper in order to think about how they make best use of their facilities and how do they get from Research to Extension,” Gayatri Acharya, Senior Economist at the Bank’s Office on Agriculture, explained. “Not to do extension work, which is the Department of Agriculture’s domain, but how do you actually bridge that gap?”

While the conversation at USAID revolved around the successful “Value Chain” created by their programs, from Farmers to Markets to Farmers, the conversation at the WB evolved into one of the Supply Chain that involves inputs of agriculture.

“That chain has to be very well developed and for that you need very strong extension services,” Purna Chettri, also a Specialist in the Agriculture Office at the Bank, added. “If there is money, the private sector will come.”

The ADB had a few additional thoughts: “In Principal we all agree that Extension Service providers need to be accountable to the farmers. Then the question is how. Of course engaging the Private sector may be an easy solution. But there is a need for sufficient regulation of that private sector to ensure they don’t impose monopoly,” Country Director Yokoyama said. “At the same time we need to look at the option of how the public sector can be improved to be more accountable and responsive to the farmer’s needs. We need to look at various models and see what is the best way to go.”

To this, ADB’s Director of Environment, Natural Resources & Agriculture Division, Takashi Matsuo, added: “The private sector may not be interested in remote areas, so the public sector may need to continue to provide the services.”

This farmer couple in Western Nepal explained that a part of their farm is already dying due to use of chemical fertilizer. They continue to use the product anyway because it produces immediate higher yields and higher income for the moment, which they said they need. Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha

This farmer couple in Western Nepal explained that a part of their farm is already dying due to use of chemical fertilizer. They continue to use the product anyway because it produces immediate higher yields and higher income for the moment, which they said they need. Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha

Seeds & Fertilizers:
A recurring theme is also the dominant role of Hybrid seeds in Nepal and it’s inherent need of chemical fertilizers. And one can’t talk about Extension Services without touching on those two key elements. The problem isn’t just that chemical fertilizers are known to be bad for the environment over all, and reduce soil fertility over time. In Nepal, there is a perpetual shortage of the product, with a history of untimely delivery. To meet these challenges there has been some recently murmurs of building a fertilizer factory in the country.

“If you build a factory here, you will have to bring in all the raw materials. There is a cost associated with that, and Nepal has to know what the impact will be on its budget. Is it going to be private, or public? How will it be financed, how will it be sustainable?” Acharya pointed out. “It’s just a fact that Nepal doesn’t have petroleum or the other necessities that go into fertilizer production. If the costs of those inputs grow globally, the cost of production in Nepal will increase too.”

To help figure all this out, the World Bank has financed a study on fertilizer policies for Nepal, and work on it is expected to start soon. “ What we’re asking them to do is look at all their policies and options and figure out what makes sense?” Acharya said of the upcoming report’s mandate.

Crop sample at the NARC campus in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha

Crop sample at the NARC campus in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo: Kashish Das Shrestha

Seed The Future:
Over all, Development partners spoken to for this report express that there is a renewed sense of synergizing their independent programs, and a decided move to integrate Nutrition and Food Security. In fact, about two months ago USAID took the initiative to host a discussion where donor groups working on Nutrition and those working on Food Security were brought together at the table along with relevant representatives of the Government of Nepal.  The World Bank too expressed that as far as coordinated efforts go, things seem to be moving in the right trajectory. The ABD assisted Agriculture Development Plan for Nepal being worked on right now is itself a coordinated effort with over 12 donor agencies, not counting the numerous local stakeholders consulted in the process. Well and good. Everyone is also eager to express that all decisions in the end has to be by the Government of Nepal itself.

“There are diverse views and advise coming from various partners, but the driving seat should be occupied by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Government of Nepal,” ADB’s Yokoyama insisted, echoing positions expressed by both the USAID and WB in interviews with them.

So, then, where is Nepal on Seeds? And what should drive Nepal’s decision on its choice for seeds and other inputs? Are immediate Food Security and Commercialization needs to shape a long-term national policy?

As lightening stuck in the skies and rain poured down, Jwala Bajracharya patiently articulated a few fundamentals in her office at NARC.

She aggress that there is no doubt Hybrids need “heavy and well managed” inputs, and that farmers are right to point out these inputs will cause their soil to lose fertility over time. She makes it clear that unless Nepali policy makers put in place strict mechanisms that demark zones where hybrids can be used and cannot, there is a risk that the country may lose their diverse indigenous varieties.

“These varieties are the main resource for breeding new verities for us,” she explained.

The Seed Technologist and Molecular Biologist also admits OPV seeds are more sustainable than Hybrids, and that using the latter requires farmers to buy a new set of seeds each season. Yet, the national policy is geared towards “improved seeds,” and farms across the country are dependent on Hybrids. Still, many will argue that Nepal needs not just Hybrid seeds, but a hybrid model of agriculture itself.

“There is a rise in demand of both food and feed,” Bajracharya concedes, adding that the sustainable options wouldn’t meet the country’s immediate food security needs. “So we are at a position where we need to use all available technologies for our benefit. But to what degree and scale is something we need to give a lot of consideration.”