sustainable farming | subsidy | policy | chemical fertiliser | organic solution | import dependency

Nepal’s chronic fertiliser crisis: Can organic be the solution?

As the season for paddy plantation approaches, Nepal's fertiliser stock is empty yet again. Without a fertiliser plant of its own, and dependency on volatile international supply and prices, a permanent solution is unlikely. The recurring crisis, on the other hand, has been making farmers anxious every now and then. Can transition to organic solutions get us out of this mess?

- By Sushmita Sharma |

Farmer with Buffalo - Outside Lumbini - Nepal” by Adam Jones, Ph.D. - Global Photo Archive is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. (Flickr)
Farmer with Buffalo - Outside Lumbini - Nepal” by Adam Jones, Ph.D. - Global Photo Archive is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. (Flickr)

Nepal’s fertiliser crisis is turning chronic now with farmers having to go through the ordeal of not getting the required quantity of fertiliser at the right time on a recurring basis. Last year, despite the threat of the pandemic, farmers swarmed at fertiliser supply centres to get their share.

This recurring crisis of a key input to agriculture production and productivity means that it may discourage farmers from their occupation and even worsen Nepal’s food problems, and severely impact the sector that employs around 60% of the Nepali workforce and contributes to one-fourth of the nation’s GDP.

Janata Prasad Chaudhary, chairperson of a farmers group in Siddharthanagar Municipality, says, “We received only a few quantities last time for our 25 farmers group members during the maturity stage of wheat, which sufficed only five farmers and was applicable to only a few crops.”

“It is distressing that even when we are ready to pay instant cash, there is no fertiliser,” Chaudhary shares his frustration. “Farmers residing near the Indian border are able to buy some fertiliser from over the border but it is costly,” he further adds.

Kanhaiya Yadav, a farmer from the same municipality, says, “It’s been a year that I have been unable to use fertiliser in my farm,” and continues, “farmers with good connections or relatives in India are able to obtain fertiliser, some of whom also work as fertiliser dealers but many of us are still empty handed.”

In Rupandehi, since the district is connected to India, Nepali fertiliser dealers (who work independently without government collaboration) directly buy fertiliser from Indian dealers. Due to the inefficiencies in the official distribution mechanism the Nepali government undertakes through AICL (Agricultural Inputs Company Ltd.), some farmers rely on this channel. 

“Even when fertilisers are brought independently, it is a long supply chain, which increases the cost for farmers,” says Yadav. A Nepal-based dealer brings in the fertiliser from the Indian dealer, which reaches to the lead farmer through distributors, and finally reaches individual farmers.

“Farmers in the municipality are already facing irrigation challenges, now the fertiliser crisis is topping the list of problems,” says Abdul Pathan, secretary of Ward 9 of Siddharthanagar Municipality.

Another farmer, Santa Kumar Chaudhary, shares that he had to rely on informal channels to get fertiliser from India when his wheat crop was at the sowing stage, which is usually what farmers do when shortages occur. Sometimes, they are even forced to buy smuggled urea at higher prices.

Although Santa was able to fulfil some of his fertiliser requirements, he is uncertain about meeting his future needs. “I have no fertiliser to apply after irrigation for the other stages of my wheat,” Santa shares his dilemma. “I visited cooperatives multiple times but it was nothing but a waste of time.” 

According to Rajpati Kurmi, another farmer, they did not get any fertiliser during sowing time of their wheat. “So we sowed wheat without any,” adds Kurmi. “It is getting distressful,” he continues. As the majority of farmers now rely on synthetic fertilisers, Kurmi shares that farmers get anxious whenever the farming season arrives. 

As the season for paddy plantation approaches, the government’s stock of fertiliser, mainly urea, is yet to be replenished which means farmers will bear the brunt once again.

As of now, Nepal doesn’t produce any chemical fertilisers on its own, and fulfils the need by importing from other countries, mainly India and China. But they are subject to fluctuations in international prices, import delays and weak supply and distribution mechanisms and many other factors leading to the perennial problem of untimely, costly and insufficient access.

Although the ongoing crisis has pressed the government to find permanent solutions, efforts are yet to bridge the supply-demand gap.

In September 2020, a parliamentary committee instructed the government to build its own fertiliser plant, but many experts believe building one is both financially and technically infeasible.

A Urea plant in Bangladesh | Wikimedia Commons

In February this year, Nepal signed a 5-year G2G chemical fertiliser procurement deal paving the way to buy at least 150,000 tonnes of chemical fertiliser every year. However, the annual demand is estimated to be four times the deal while the procurement process under the G2G deal is progressing at a snail pace.

The downsides of chemical fertilisers
Since 1960 after the green revolution, the discovery of synthetic fertiliser played a great role in the transition of agriculture improving the overall production level.

Today, chemical fertilisers are one of the key inputs in the development of crops and quality of crop production. But chemical-intensive farming practices are leading to the loss of soil productivity. There are environmental and health hazards too.

Harmful chemicals like lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium and radioactive materials etc. of which traces are found in chemical fertilisers are non-biodegradable and harm soil microorganisms. The metals associated with the chemical fertilisers have negative impacts on human organs such as the kidney, lungs and liver.

Increased use of chemical fertilisers also causes soil, air and water pollution. “Since soil doesn’t absorb all the chemicals, rainfalls usually wash away residual chemicals into river streams, which can kill aquatic life, cause river pollution, and adulterate the drinking water,” explains Sanjay Subedi, a seasonal farmer based in Chitwan.

Soil degradation due to excessive reliance on chemical fertilisers is already a major problem in South Asia. A survey report in Bhutan found links between the soil fertility declines with the excessive use of chemical fertilisers. In Pakistan, it is found that most of the soil is deficient in nitrogen and up to 90% in phosphorus due to the problem of availability of fertiliser from soil to plant. Moreover, Pakistani soil characteristically has high pH (7 to 9) due, in part to the excessive application of phosphorus fertilisers. 

These problems with the health and environment of society will eventually offset economic benefits, many experts believe.

Can organic fertiliser be the alternative?
Usually, farmers cultivating in small farms do not face the problem of scarcity, because they rely mostly on Farm Yard Manure (FYM) and less on chemical fertiliser.

“I am into livestock farming and use the farm manure for my crops,” shares Ramdash Teli from Siddharthanagar Municipality - 9 who farms in his one kattha of farmland. “I buy only a small amount of Urea and DAP," he shares.

A farmer spreading kraal manure (decomposing manure from cattle pens) on recently ploughed land | Photo by Hlokozi, KwaZulu-Natal taken in 2008 (Wikimedia Commons)

But for farmers engaged in large commercial farming, transitioning to organic fertiliser completely is not an immediate possibility. 

When asked about using organic fertiliser, Chaudhary explained that they mainly rely on chemical fertiliser, and switching to organic now will risk their production. He further reasons that they don’t have adequate knowledge about producing and using organic manure such as compost, Bokashi mal etc.

Private firms producing organic fertiliser in the country assert that the right kind of organic fertilisers and nitrogen-fixation intercropping can improve farmers’ yield.

According to Gandaki Urja, their organic fertiliser product Annapurna consists of 15 different nutrients including phosphorus, nitrogen and potash that keeps the soil chemical-free, reduces infection and pest infestation and increases yield.

But switching to organic fertiliser is an uphill task.

“Farmers heavily rely on hybrid seeds for quicker production and better yield now, and reliance on hybrid seeds necessitates intense use of chemical fertilisers,” explains Prashant Raut, an agroecologist and R&D Manager at Agricultural Technology Center (ATC), an agriculture specialist consulting firm.

On top of that, chemical fertilisers are heavily subsidised making organic fertilisers the more expensive option. For this, the government sets aside a great chunk of the agriculture budget on fertiliser subsidies alone. Between fiscal year 2014/15 and 2020/21, the share of chemical fertiliser subsidy in the agriculture budget averaged at around 22%.

“For all these reasons, changing farmers’ mindset isn’t easy,” adds Raut, “despite the benefits of organic fertilisers.”

Agriculture experts have been highlighting that organic solutions increase organic matter in the soil and eventually improve the soil structure by releasing nutrients for a longer period of time whereas synthetic fertilisers, especially those that are ammonium based, slowly create acidity in soil. Organic solutions also improve water drainage and retention as well as air circulation in the soil, and also prevent environmental pollution. 

Tilaurakot, Lumbini by cattan2011 is licensed under CC BY 2.0. (Flickr)

“Yet shift towards organic fertiliser for large scale farming is not immediately possible due to its inadequate supply, but doable in small scale farming for now,” Raut points out. For this, farmers need intensive training and awareness on the production and use of organic fertiliser.

Raut also thinks that there is a different untapped value chain that if leveraged can enhance production capacity of organic fertilisers. “If we prioritise livestock farming, its bi-products can be channelled towards large scale fertiliser production,” he suggests.

But the recent Sri Lankan crisis may make Nepal wary of transitioning to organic practices for some time, even a gradual one, although it will continue to insist in its policy papers for the need to move towards sustainable farming practices.

Sri Lanka suddenly banned chemical fertiliser through its new agriculture policy in April 2021 to move to organic production. With the shortage of chemical fertiliser, the cost of production peaked – raising food prices. The crop yield dropped tremendously and Sri Lanka now experiences food insecurity.

A similar outcome may prevail in Nepal too if its fertiliser crisis doesn’t find a permanent fix.

The Middle Ground 
While there are issues with complete transitions to chemical or organic fertiliser use, challenges are not limited to the type of fertiliser– how the fertiliser is being used is of equal consequence. 

Farmers of South Asia do not have scientific information on the fertilizer application leading to the imbalance in fertiliser use. Soil test before application of fertilizer dose is important to gauge soil health. The results show the amount of nutrients present in the soil and help calculating the required amount of nutrients to be added. This practice is rare, if not non-existent in Nepal. 

That’s not all. 

The inefficiencies in the distribution system of chemical fertiliser contributes to the haphazard application of fertiliser in an effective way. 

Rajesh Barai of Omsatiya Municipality says, “When the field had suitable moisture, a right fit for fertilizer application, we did not get any fertilizer. But due to untimely supply, the moisture is usually lost during the time of application.”

Since farmers don’t have adequate knowledge about the application and dosage of fertilizer, there is an excess application which is detrimental to the environment. “Farmers apply large amounts of fertiliser at the time of availability, and during scarce times, they don’t at all,” Barai adds. 

While farmers have knowledge about organic fertiliser use with non-hybrid seeds, knowledge about scientific methods like soil testing and optimum use of chemical fertiliser is lacking. 

This factor must not be overlooked in the discussion surrounding fertiliser use in Nepal.

The crux of the matter, however, is that resolving the scarcity of chemical fertiliser permanently is unlikely. Lack of in-house chemical fertiliser plants and dependence on volatile international markets for the supply will continue to exacerbate the problem. A hasty transition into organic fertiliser also poses a number of risks.

All things considered, particularly the massive long-run economic and environmental effects of chemical fertilisers, a judicious step would be to gradually transition to hybrid solutions for now. 

Sushmita Sharma is an intern at the_farsight currently based in Bhairahawa.

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