How Covid Impacted Farming and Food Availability in Nepal

As a landlocked nation, Nepal has been overly dependent on other nations for certain key components of its economy, including its agricultural and farming industry. The lockdowns from covid impacted Nepal’s farming in ways never before seen. As you’re about to find out, they may never return to the way they used to be.

And, that may actually turn out to be a good thing.

We wanted to write this article because the families who have been served by Friends of WPC Nepal in Hetauda and its surrounding communities were greatly impacted by the covid lockdowns and their effect on farming and food distribution.

Families and kids we know and care about suffered as a result of the lockdowns, so it is worth taking some time to understand how exactly covid impacted farming on a local and national level in Nepal. Much of the information in this article came from this study, which has much more detail and other cited sources, if you wish to dive deep.

Initial Impact of Covid on Farming

In the earliest days of the lockdowns, which occurred in most nations around the world in March 2020, Nepal’s most serious problem came from the fact that about 28.6% of its GDP came from foreign remittances in 2019. This is money made by Nepalis who are working in other nations like India, Malaysia, and the Persian Gulf nations.

When these nations chose to shut down their economies and close their borders, money being sent into Nepal from these foreign workers stopped coming in.

The economic effects on the nation of Nepal were, not surprisingly, devastating. You can read this to learn more about how the covid lockdowns affected Nepal in its tourism, trade, education, and mental health.

56% of households used to receive at least some of their income from foreign remittances.

Even more problematic, Nepal has historically not been able to compete with India in terms of exporting farm products, for a variety of reasons. Bottom line is, India can do it cheaper.

So, prior to covid, about 30% of cultivated farmland in Nepal had been abandoned and left fallow, because most of the young men had gone overseas to work.

Thus, when the lockdowns from covid came, Nepal didn’t have the food infrastructure in place to provide enough food for its own people. It was a net importer of food, and relied heavily on subsistence farming.

They didn’t have enough farms, or enough seed, fertilizer, irrigation, or technical expertise, and with borders closed, these things were harder to come by than they already were.

The result: Food insecurity.

Farming Infrastructure in Nepal

95% of family farms in Nepal – 3.7 million total – are ‘owner cultivated.’ The average size isn’t that large, just 0.6 hectares, and most of the labor is done by family – the majority by women because many of the young men have gone overseas to work.

These farms only sell about 12% of their production to the market, and only generate about 5% of their income from it. This is subsistence farming.

One reason this is difficult, even for farmers who want to sell, is that roads and other infrastructure are also in poor shape. It takes a lot of time and effort to ship anything from remote and outlying areas.

One positive farming development before covid actually came as a result of the 2015 earthquakes. In the aftermath of that national disaster that killed over 9000, Nepal’s government realized that it was the subsistence farmers who were able to keep producing food when some of the systemic disruptions prevented other food from arriving. The majority of their seeds, compost, and labor come from each local area.

So, subsistence farmers had received some additional support prior to covid.

When the Lockdowns Hit…

Initially, it was a terrible situation.

Just one month after the lockdowns began on March 24th, 2020, food insecurity in Nepal shot up 8%, now affecting nearly a quarter of all households.

10% of households lost all their income, and another 30% faced a serious reduction. Particularly hard hit was the Karnali province, which in September 2020 reported some completely empty food depots – no food to buy at all.

Lots of people – particularly women and poor families – went hungry. Mental health declined. Suicides rose. Job losses crippled families. Schools closed. Domestic violence skyrocketed. Read more about these and other lockdown effects in this post.

But then, a positive trend developed.

The Returning Migrant Workers

What happens when 500,000 young men return from working overseas because they lost their jobs all at the same time?

You have a dual threat here:

  • Drastically reduced income for 56% of families in Nepal
  • 500,000 more mouths to feed

So you have less money, but need more food than before.

Many of these men looked around Nepal and observed all the unused, fallow ground that used to be cultivated. Recall from earlier that 30% of cultivated land had been abandoned.

These workers began reworking some of that fallow ground and started producing more food, and some of their crops were marketable, such as ginger and turmeric, which helped bring some much-needed life to the economy.

With this new farm growth, combined with the continued output from the local subsistence farms and a good monsoon season in 2021, the farm economy was able to revive itself to some degree, but only after the terrible months in the middle of 2020 during the lockdown.

Cash Crops Didn’t Recover As Quickly

The Chitwan valley in southern Nepal is their most productive region for commercial farming. They produce vegetables, fruits, milk, and poultry, which feeds much of the nation.

But the severed import system caused them to lose feed from India.

This led to production losses. Combined with the lost economic output from the rest of the nation and the losses in tourism, the Chitwan region had produced more perishable foods than they could sell in 2020.

So, tragically, they had to throw out tons of perfectly good food, in part because the nation of Nepal doesn’t have enough cold storage facilities to preserve perishable foods for internal use. Bananas were left to rot on trees.

Nepal also couldn’t import fertilizer in 2020, which lowered the rice crop production.

How Will Covid Impact Farming and Agriculture in Nepal’s Future?

Supply chains and imports have continued to struggle in Nepal, so even with new production from existing farms and newly cultivated fallow land, many people in Nepal still aren’t able to get a good variety of consistently available foods with a breadth of nutritional value.

Some communities have suffered more than others, particularly non-urban ones, because the cities have received the bulk of government aid.

Nepal’s government has taken some good steps. They have:

  • Bought produce from farmers and transported it to the neediest areas
  • Given cash grants to farmers who were reworking the fallow lands
  • Given free wheat threshers to increase productivity and reduce labor needs

Many migrant workers have returned to other nations, so the labor pool is again tight for people who can do physically demanding farm work. That’s why technology like wheat threshers is such an important investment.

These and other steps from the government are helping in the places they are affecting. But on a national level, the needs are still great, and the poor roads and other infrastructure problems make it hard to distribute food effectively across the nation.

But probably the best outcome so far from this is that the people of Nepal have realized the risk of being too dependent on other nations for food and agricultural essentials like feed and fertilizer.

Hopefully, the discussions and debates related to this realization will lead to an industrial expansion within the nation, so they can better provide for their own people, and also become a bigger exporter. This would increase job opportunities and improve Nepal’s overall economy, in addition to bringing more food security.