Monday, 2nd March 2015

Feature: The farmer’s market is a leap in a possible future

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Buyers and vendors at a weekly “farmers’ market” held at 1905 in Kantipath, Kathmandu. The restaurant has been hosting the market on Saturdays since 2010. NN/File photoThe farmer’s market in Kantipath, Kathmandu is an oasis of pleasure in a very chaotic desert. It is a separate microcosm of goodies, organic farming, meetings and people from all around the world.

The market takes place every Saturday morning in the open space of the 1905 restaurant which was inaugurated in 2010 by a group of farmers. The location is really evocative as it is a nice garden full of trees enriched by a small lake with aquatic plants. It makes its attendees feel like they are in a different world outside Kathmandu since everything is relaxing, green and environmental-friendly. No dust, pollution or traffic noise.

This is an image of what Kathmandu can and should become in the future.

The market is, first of all, a place where producers and consumers can have a direct interaction. “We started the market so that we could sell our products to clients without an intermediary,” says François Driard, one of the farmers who founded the market and has been selling his French specialty foods since then. This is a way for customers to get to know the vendors and trust the quality of the food they buy. At the same time, sellers can build and count on a group of regular clients.

It is also a simple meeting space people go to because of the enjoyable atmosphere and pleasant environment. “I really like this spot because the setting is nice and people are very friendly,” states Tom Ady, an American tourist. Some of the attendees spend their mornings there to have breakfast or just meet some friends. Most of them are regular clients and as such the human environment of the market seems a kind of community of acquaintances who are just having a good time together.

But the quintessence of the market seems to be its organic nature, at least according to most of the customers.  When asked about their motive for the market visit, almost everyone replied by putting forward the will to buy organic food. “I come here because I think organic food is better for my health,” points out Nischal Tuladhar, a student in accounting. Others are just interested in buying high-quality delicacies. “I am not so concerned about organic because you never know if the food you are buying is actually organic, but I like the kinds of cheese, meat or vegetables I can get here,” says Oliver Sudbrink, an employee in a development corporation.

Actually, not all vendors sell organic products as Gianantonio Candiani makes clear: “I cannot grow organic food because my crops would be affected anyway by the chemicals used in the neighboring lands”. Mr Candiani sells Italian specialty food such as lasagna or pesto sauce and believes his clients are fond of his “high-quality” products made by using high sanitary regulations.

On the contrary, Kumar Khanal, who sells fruits and vegetables, explains that his goods are entirely organic. He works for Appropriate Agricultural Alternatives, an organic farm that produces crops without using chemical pesticides or fertilizers. “We don’t want to ingest poison into our systems, we want good food”, points out Gaurav Khanal, the marketing manager of the farm. These kinds of concerns are not unfounded since residues of chemicals have been detected in the 12% of the food samples analysed in Nepal between 1995 and 2005, according to a 2012 study of The Journal of Agriculture and Environment. The study also highlights that the effects of these chemicals on human could result in health hazards including cancer, birth defects and reproductive problems, among others.

But health worry is not the only motivation for Gaurav Khanal to engage with organic methods. “We also want to balance nature,” he says. Mr Khanal explains that the abuse of pesticides puts in danger the soil’s quality because it decreases its biomass. Chemicals can boost plants’ short term growth  but in the long run they end up being counter-productive by killing those microbes that make soil fertile. This idea is confirmed by Khem Raj Dahal, associate professor at the Institute of Agriculture and Animal Science of Tribhuvan University, when he points out that “inorganic chemicals promote the quick degradation of organic matter and soil without organic matter is just a desert”.  

If organic farming is the best technique to grow food that is safe both for human health and natural environment, each farmer should support it and stop using chemicals. However, we have to wonder if this hypothetical switch to natural methods and inputs would be able to feed the entire Nepali population, which grows at an annual rate of 1.7%, according to the United Nations data. To put it in two words: does organic farming yield as much as chemical farming?

Gaurav Khanal answers this question clearly: “Our harvest is not as great as those grown with the help of chemical pesticides and fertilisers.”Mr Khanal makes clear his farm uses several organic methods that are effective at protecting crops from pests and feeding them. Nevertheless, organic farmers cannot compete with those who employ chemical hormones and pesticides, so sometimes they just have to give up and let a plant die. “Our harvest depends on what nature gives us.”

By contrast, professor Dahal points out “In initial years, organic system of production yields less in the pockets where the use of chemical has been intensive”. Instead, lands in which a low chemical agriculture has been practiced assure a richer harvest, or at least equivalent, compared to the chemical farming ones. “No doubt in such case farmers have to well understand the crop and its ecology”. In fact, organic farmers have to study their crops in a very careful way in order to come up with techniques that could replace chemical inputs.

Farmers at Appropriate Agricultural Alternatives, for instance, mix up different kinds of plants to create a repellent smell that keeps pests away from crops. Of course, learning these types of skills takes time and several attempts.

These conflicting points of view highlight the fact that the question of the production capacity of organic farming is still an ongoing debate. It seems evident that organic methods are the right ones for a society that holds health and environment close to its heart. However, it seems equally clear that this procedure needs to be carefully monitored step by step to check its productivity.

Another certainty is that the production of organic food requires a great deal of time and technical skills.

Appropriate Agricultural Alternatives is one of the several private organisations promoting organic food in Nepal by not only growing food in a natural way but also teaching other farmers how to do the same without chemicals. Yet, this is not enough. Organic-food production development needs public support but the government is yet to take any initiative in this regard, according to Mr Khanal.

In fact, the Ministry of Agricultural Development is carrying out the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program through the Plant Protection Directorate. The IPM project aims to familiarise farmers to the dangerous effects related to the use of chemicals and prompt them to employ organic techniques. Thanks to this program, 15.000 farmers have been training and their products have been selling in a common market in Banepa, Kavre.

Nevertheless, farmers who are involved in the IPM, use chemical inputs when the organic counterparts are not available or effective, points out Dilli Ram Sharma, the IPM National Coordinator.

“IPM efficiency and adoption rate by the farmers is low,” states professor Dahal. This depends on a shortage of organic inputs and the great amount of time and research organic farming requires. Farmers prefer using chemicals because they don’t want to lose time observing the behavior of crops and pests to find an effective and natural growing strategy. According to the professor, the effective way to spread organic approach among a greater number of farmers is promoting natural inputs and technologies. Organic pesticides are easily available and a research about the most resistant varieties of crop would make organic farming much more doable/practical.

Besides that, public subsidies seem to be necessary, especially for those farmers who switch from chemicals to organic inputs and get a poor yield in the first endeavours. In fact, without an economic support, it’s unlikely that farmers would put at risk their only source of income.

Nepali political forces and civil society have to choose the type of development they want. Organic farming could be one of the steps towards a healthy, environmentally sustainable and clean country. It could make Kathmandu and entire Nepal more similar to that small earthly paradise which starts every Saturday morning in Kantipath.



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