After the Hindu festival of Dashain in October, farmers across Nepal head to their fields to harvest their prized rice paddy crop. Those in the flatlands then prepare their land to grow lentils, also known as ‘poor man’s protein’, because they provide such an important source of nutrition for many in Nepal.

While waterlogged paddy fields are good for growing lentils, which thrive in cool conditions, the legume also plays an important role in fixing nitrogen in the soil for the next crop cycle. When winter rains arrive, the lentils get just enough water to thrive, especially in the southern Terai region, home to 80% of the 250,000 hectares of land on which lentils are grown in Nepal.

But farmers are abandoning lentil for wheat and vegetables, which fetch a better price in the market. Hari Sharma, a retired civil servant living in Jaynagar in western Nepal’s Bardiya district, noticed the change in his neighbourhood around four years ago. “People used to grow lentils after the paddy was harvested,” he remembers. “But these days, many farmers are shying away from the crop.”

From exporter to importer

Lentils are an important part of the famous ‘dal-bhat’ (rice-lentils) combination that many Nepalis, especially in the hills swear by. Lentils are an important source of protein in the Nepali diet, especially for poor families that don’t earn enough to eat meat or eggs regularly. 

Lentils and rice in a clay pot. [Image courtesy Alamy]

They are also important for the economic health of the country, which until recently was one of the world’s top producers of lentils. Nepal was the seventh biggest producer of lentils in the world in 2018, producing almost 250,000 tonnes of lentils according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). And this is despite low yields compared to other countries, attributed to the continued use of poor quality local seeds (saved from the previous year), limited fertiliser use, as well as poor crop management. 

“Until around 2014, Nepal even exported lentils to other countries, especially Bangladesh,” said Gokul P Paudel, an agricultural economist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT). “But these days, exports have been limited. The Indian government’s focus on pulses and its subsidies to farmers has boosted productivity in India. Bangladesh too has prioritised lentils and expanded both the cropping area and productivity,” said Paudel, who recently co-authored a paper looking at reasons for low lentil productivity in Nepal.  

 “Lentils from India and Bangladesh are relatively cheaper because these countries provide a lot of subsidies and assistance to farmers,” said Khem Raj Ghimire, a farmer based in Bansghari, Bardiya. “But our government doesn’t do anything for its farmers,” he complained, adding that many lentil farmers have switched to wheat and vegetables, which are relatively more secure in terms of market price. 

The low level of production can’t keep up with growing domestic demand, and Nepal started importing lentils in 2015, said Paudel.

Along comes climate change

The warmer, wetter winters brought by climate change have hit lentil farmers hard. One of the most visible signs of climate change in South Asia in recent years has been the “mood swings” of westerly winds. After September/October, when paddy is harvested, the south-westerly monsoon recedes and westerly winds take over. 

The westerly winds, which originate in the Mediterranean bring winter rain to western Nepal and other parts of the country. Most climatic models suggest these disturbances will bring more intense rain as the world heats up.

“We have already observed more rain in the winter in the past few years,” said Shanta Ghimire from Lakshmipur, Dang district in southwest Nepal. “The rain brings a lot of problems for lentil farmers in western Nepal,” she added. “There’s water logging in the fields, and the crop is attacked by pests and disease,” said Ghimire, who is also a central committee member of the National Farmers’ Group Federation.

Ghimire’s observations are also echoed in research conducted by Paudel and his colleagues, who used farm surveys and experimental trials, climate data, and disease simulation models to identify why lentil production has fallen in western Nepal. 

“In recent years, winters have become significantly wetter due to climatic change. Excessive rain not only increases the chances of water logging, but also boosts humidity, which is not good for lentils,” Paudel told The Third Pole. 

The researchers also found that excessive moisture in the air and soil causes various diseases such as root rot, which leads to heavy losses for farmers.  The team identified Stemphylium blight disease as one major threat. This disease starts with small, light beige lesions on the leaves that spreads infecting shoots, stems and flowers.

According to Paudel, a fall in lentil production affects rural farmers’ food security in two ways. First, for farmers who sell lentils in the market, their income is diminished. “Due to this they don’t have enough money to buy food. In developing countries like Nepal, households spend a significant proportion of their income on buying food,” he told The Third Pole.

Second, farmers growing lentils suffer from reduced food stock at home due to a decline in production.

Efforts to resuscitate

Farmers now say lentils take too much time and effort to grow, but researchers are trying to rescue the important crop. 

According to Paudel, the National Grain Legume Research Program has made efforts to stem the blight disease with support from the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research in the past. The solutions include introducing flood-tolerant varieties that can also withstand the fungal disease.

“We have found that some varieties of lentils indigenous to Nepal (for example: Black Musuro) have lower infestation [rates]. Some flood-tolerant varieties have been developed in Australia that we could bring to Nepal as well,” he added.  

But farmers have been reluctant to use these improved varieties.

The other solution could be to make farmers aware of changing rain patterns and provide them timely forecasts to choose the best time for growing lentils. “This would need a well developed weather forecasting systems, so that farmers are able to get rainfall information prior to lentil seeding.” 

The authors of the study have also suggested that planting lentils in raised beds can help mitigate the problem of water logging. “Bed planting allows lentils to grow on the ridge and when there is high rainfall, excess water is drained through the furrows,” Paudel explained. However, this requires investment in mechanised techniques which would be difficult for farmers who already have poor management practices. 

As lentils are grown after paddy is harvested, the introduction of early-maturing paddy could help farmers plant lentils earlier and thus prevent infestation of fungal diseases, the study suggested.

Despite the problems in the Terai, the study found that more rain was good for lentil crops in the hills where drainage of water is easier. This could be a clue as to where the country needs to focus to improve the production of lentils, the authors say.

Paudel said both the farmers and the government have neglected such an important crop. “That the government hasn’t included lentils as one of the prioritised commodities shows that the crop is not seen as important.” 

“But as most of the flatlands are close to the border with India, there’s little incentive for farmers to grow lentils, which can be easily bought at a cheaper rate in India,” Sharma, the retired civil servant, concluded.

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