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AGRICULTURE-NEPAL: Pesticide Misuse Ravages Staple Paddy

Suman Pradhan

KATHMANDU, Nov 26 1998 (IPS) - Nepal has become an importer of foodgrains with pests devastating large areas of paddy in the Terai, the country’s “food bowl”, despite the dramatic increase in use of pesticides in the last three decades.

Agriculture experts are alarmed by the onslaught of Brown Plant Hoppers (BPH) which this year alone ravaged 10,000 tonnes of paddy – official estimates – in the southern grain growing districts.

“Nepal is probably headed for mass starvation in a decades’ time if the BPH menace is left uncontrolled,” warns entomologist Shreebaba Pradhan at the government’s National Agricultural Research Council (NARC) here.

Food scientists blame the pest menace on the overuse of powerful pesticides by the country’s largely illiterate farming communities.

“Though chemical control is being practiced by many farmers, many use harmful and expensive pesticides ignoring our recommendations,” points out Bharat Prasad Upadhyay, an official at the Crop Protection Department.

Pesticide misuse decimates the natural predators of pests like spiders, crabs, beetles and dragon flies, he says, adding that “due to this imbalance in the food-chain, pests have increased dramatically this year.”

Laxman Gautam, programme officer of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Kathmandu, confirms: “Misuse of pesticides has been killing pests which are bad for crops as well as insects and small animals which are good for crops.”

The Department of Agriculture estimates that BPH alone has wiped out paddy spread over 25,000 hectares of arable land in the Terai, bordering India. But the department is not pressing alarm bells because the hopper pests have not spread to affect paddyfields in the hill regions.

In fact, Agriculture Minister Trilochan Dhakal is claiming that paddy production will actually increase by 1.5 percent over last year’s output of 3.69 million tonnes, but researchers have dismissed his optimistic predictions as “tall claims” that do not corroborate with their findings.

In just over three decades, tiny Nepal has turned from a small-time exporter of foodgrain into a net importer, a testament to its inability to use modern agriculture techniques to feed a growing population, estimated at 21.5 million in 1995.

John Moller, an American agriculture specialist who has worked in Nepal for two decades and who also advises the Agriculture Ministry, points out that the soil fertility in the fertile plains, criss-crossed by Himalayan rivers, has decreased markedly in 30 years due mostly to overuse of pesticides.

“Soil fertility has dwindled fast due to overuse of chemical fertilisers and continued use of unscientific agriculture systems,” says Moller. According to him, three decades ago Nepali farmers used only 494 tonnes of chemical fertilisers annually. Now it has jumped to more than 50,000 metric tonnes per year.

“Nepal can increase productivity in the agriculture sector only through the use of scientific technology,” he advises. And that means, careful use of chemical fertilisers, new quality seeds and extended irrigation facilities.

The main detriment to scientific farming practices has been lack of awareness among farmers. “What is happening in Nepal is that those who need help (farmers) do not have knowledge about how to use pesticides, and they do not consult with advisors sent to the districts by the government,” explains FAO’s Gautam.

The government and FAO have been trying to solve the problem with the introduction of a two-year Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programme last year under which agriculture advisors are being trained to work with farmers and impart knowledge.

Gautam explains that the IPM is actually a sort of a school for farmers where they gain practical knowledge on their fields from accompanying government advisors. FAO has decided to fund another four-year programme in the pipeline to continue the work, after the current programme ends at the end of the year.

“Maybe farmers will be more careful (in future),” hopes the Crop Protection Department’s Upadhyay. “This year’s damage will be a lesson to them. But we need far more of such awareness programmes to be able to affect a turnaround in farmers’ mentality.”

Researchers warn the BPH menace is spreading. First spotted in the country’s eastern Terai district of Jhapa, the hoppers have

now penetrated the central Terai districts.

“Last year, we detected it in Rupandehi district in the central Terai,” says NARC entomologist Pradhan. “In another decade, it will spread to the western Terai, damaging crops in its trail.”

Scientists say hoppers suck dry the juices of a rice plant, and act more worryingly as a vector for deadly viruses that destroy paddy by the tonnes. Two specific viruses have been identified, which are thought to be responsible for devastating crops.

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