Climate change hits Himalayan rice

It is that time of the year again when farmers across the country are busy on flooded terraces, transplanting rice seedlings, sling mud, singing and dancing to folk tunes, and celebrating the occasion.


Unlike in the past, however, National Paddy Planting Day (on 29 June this year) is no longer the optimal time to plant the first saplings. Erratic monsoon, irregular rain leading to too much water or too little due to the climate crisis has meant that farmers are now confused about when to plant paddy.


Water sources including natural springs have also started drying up right across the Himalayan foothills. Villagers do not have sufficient water even for their households, let alone agriculture.


All photos: AMIT MACHAMASI

Last year Nepal was expected to record its highest annual rice harvest given the early start to the monsoon only for most of the standing crop being destroyed in unseasonal post-monsoon cloudbursts in October.


“We don’t get rain like we used to which was most suitable for farming, it doesn’t rain on time and when it does it pours,” says Krishna Prasad Adhikari, a farmer in Lumle. “The winds are also stronger and it is hotter to farm during the day.”


Kasnath Neupane from Sundarinanda village has a similar experience: “We are now planting paddy about a month later than we used to. If rainfall patterns continue to be this erratic our planting schedule will have to be pushed by 3-4 months.”


Locals have also seen a declining trend in the number of native rice breeds and fear they might be disappearing. Even in Pokhara, which grows Nepal’s most famous indigenous varieties of rice, farmers have noticed the change, particularly the loss of the distinctive aroma which makes the rice variety so special.


New plant diseases have added to the problem, wiping out entire harvests. This and the additional challenges posed by climate change are making farmers dependent on rain-fed agriculture losing their very livelihood and becoming poorer.


“Back in the day my father could feed an entire family of almost 10 members and still had a surplus to sell in the market but I can barely grow enough for four people,” adds Adhikari.


The only alternative left for many farmers here in Central Nepal’s mountains is to migrate to India, the Gulf or Malaysia for better economic opportunities. But as young men move out of the country, there is no one left to till the land, adding to the decline of agro-productivity.


The good news is that locals in the villages of Kaski district are saving their local varieties of rice. They have set up a community seed bank to preserve seeds of local varieties that would last them several years with assistance from the Local Initiative for Biodiversity Research and Development (LI-BIRD).


“Our local rice like Jethobudo, Gurdi, Darmali, Mansara, Manamri and Ghaiiya are on the verge of extinction but because of this seed bank we have managed to revive some of them including Jethobudo, Paheli and Mansuli,” says Homnath Neupane from Sundaridanda village.


Farmers have also been spreading awareness about planting local seeds over hybrid varieties which in their experience have a higher yield, but do not have the same capability to survive against diseases.


Farmers here have also developed a mobile app to disseminate information about preserving and promoting local seeds of different crops. There are agriculture centres in each village which communicate with each other. There is also a radio program called Chautari which is a reliable source of information for the farmers.


LI-BIRD has been working with farmers from more than 3,000 households in the Sindhupalchok and Kaski district to scale-up climate-resilient agriculture by promoting crop diversity, improving soil health, conserving water all the while maximising the utilisation of local resources. The project is aimed at building the resilience of smallholder, indigenous and women farmers.


LI-BIRD recently registered five varieties of rice for their conservation including Mukkhe Rato Anadi, Paheley, Ekley, Kaalo Jhinuwa, and Bayerni.


“Now the source of these seeds will be preserved,” says Pratikshya Thapa of LI-BIRD, which also works to archive vegetables, millet, yams and medicinal herbs.


As farmers marked Paddy Day here on Wednesday, there was concern about how the climate crisis is affecting weather and crop patterns. They have adapted by changing their way of farming based on local knowledge and community effort. The need is now for the government to backstop them with technical know-how and financial support.


“There is no insurance in agriculture. We only ask the government to either provide us alternatives or insure our investment in growing food,” says Adhikari. “We want to learn about more farming methods and crops that can resist the impact of climate change.”

Just this week on 28 June, based on extensive research the Agriculture Division of the Pokhara Municipality introduced minimum selling prices for 23 crops, vegetables and fruits to help farmers. By setting a minimum selling price, farmers are protected from fluctuating market trends, they can sell at the price set or higher to the customers or approach the Division where vendors will pay the aforementioned price. If the market price is lower than the minimum selling price, the government will pay the vendor to cover the difference. “Agriculture is a sector where farmers suffer right from the seeds to market, from hailstorms to monkey attacks,” says Manahar Kadariya of the Division. “These measures intend to preserve the locally grown crops as well as enhance the livelihoods of farmers.”

Another major challenge is the youth moving away from the land. There is an intergenerational disruption in farming. Adds Krishna Prasad Adhikari: “We need to improvise our education system to also include agriculture in the curriculum. Technological advances in farming and institutional support can help revive agriculture in Nepal.”


High and dry in Jumla


At 2,514m, Jumla district in western Nepal grows rice at some of the highest elevations in the world. It is the home to the famous Marsi rice but increasingly these indigenous crops are affected by the climate crisis.


This has added to food insecurity in a traditionally grain deficit area. Farmers are having to plant crops at higher altitudes for better yield, but they are also vulnerable to new diseases and pests. Jumli Marsi in particular has been found to be more susceptible to the blast disease.


Under its Evolutionary Plant Breeding project, LI-BIRD is working to mix the strengths of different varieties of seeds to develop climate resilient and high performing varieties for future generations.


An evolutionary population can be formed by segregating seed varieties. Sometimes, varieties having similar functional traits can be mixed turning the static seeds into dynamically evolving populations. Farmers can then select desirable varieties which have higher genetic diversity.


“Due to climate change, some of the varieties that were performing better are now more prone to diseases, insects, and pests,” says project manager Shree Prasad Neupane. “We aim to breed seeds that are more stable in production, less prone to diseases and higher in nutritional values.”


Local farmers have also noticed that while non-local improved seeds do result in higher yield in certain parts of the year, this is not consistent. But seeds bred with evolutionary methods have adapted to changing conditions and can also withstand diseases better.


But it is not just the quantity that matters in these rugged mountains of western Nepal. Historically neglected by the state, Jumla and surrounding districts are lowest in the human development index in Nepal, with a high rate of malnutrition among marginal and small-hold farmers.


Which is why protecting varieties rich in nutritional values like Jumli Marsi is even more important. New hybrid seeds lack important micronutrients.


Evolutionary Plant Breeding is also different because it empowers farmers to select the varieties for breeding based on their experience and local knowledge. Communities themselves are breeding the most resilient varieties against production instability, diseases and lack of nutrition, all the problems exacerbated by the climate crisis.


Adds Shree Prasad Neupane: “Farmers decide where to plant the seeds and which seeds to plant, which one is better to retain and multiply. And we leave the rest to nature to choose the most suitable one for the subsequent generations.”