Interview | ‘Canada has one of the strongest agricultural research systems, it can help Nepal in its agricultural development’: Dr Kalidas Subedi

‘The Government of Canada is well aware of the threat of climate change and the role of the agriculture sector to minimize its effects.’

NL Today

  • Read Time 8 min.

Dr Kalidas Subedi is an agricultural scientist, who works for the Government of Canada as a Project Lead/Study Director. He has extensive knowledge and experience of agriculture research, technology transfer and project management, gained through working with different national and international research and development organizations including the DFID-UK, SDC-Helvetas, and governments of Canada and Nepal. Dr Subedi earned his PhD and Master’s degrees from the University of Reading, UK and BSc (Hons) Ag from Haryana Agricultural University, India. He has published over 60 papers in leading international journals, books and book chapters, over 100 research papers, training manuals, and proceedings in different aspects of agriculture. He is also the recipient of several awards and recognitions including “Dipendra Youth Scientist Award” from the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST). Nepal Live Today recently caught up with Dr Subedi to discuss various issues including his extensive agriculture knowledge that could be valuable for Nepal. Excerpts:

What are the main crops in Canada? How is the situation of food security in Canada?

Canada has a vast area of land but only about seven percent of it is used in agriculture mainly because of the climatic limitations. Still, the agricultural land is huge compared to several countries of the world. Of the total agricultural land, natural pasture and grass/forage area is more than the cropped area. Based on the Canada Census 2016, only 1.7 percent of the population is engaged in farming. The average farm size is about 330 hectares but farm size varies from province to province.

Canada produces almost every food crop in the world. However, it is more field crops dominated. The major crops grown are wheat, canola, soybean, maize, barley, oat, potatoes, flax, pulse crops namely lentils, peas, chickpeas and beans. Beef cattle, pig and dairy farming are also important agricultural components other than grain and oilseed crops production. Several types of high value fruits namely apple, grapes, cherry, peach, plums, blueberry, raspberry, strawberries and vegetable crops are grown on a commercial scale. Sophisticated and controlled environment green houses, plastic tunnels and hydroponic production facilities are also used mainly for vegetable production targeted to the cooler season where the production in the fields is not possible. Agriculture sector contributes about seven percent to GDP.

Canada produces abundant food commodities than it requires for internal consumption. Majority of its food and livestock production are export oriented. For example, Canada is the world’s largest exporter of canola, which contributes about 30 percent of the world export and about 90 percent of canola it produces. Canada ranks third in the global wheat export after Russia and USA, which accounts for about 75 percent of wheat it produces. Similarly, Canada exports 95 percent of its pulses (about five million tons), 70 percent of pork and half of beef/cattle it produces.

If trade between Nepal and Canada can be formalized and Nepali products are promoted in Canada, both countries can benefit immensely.’

Canada is a net exporter of food commodities, but it is not self-sufficient in fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, and alcoholic beverages. It imports fresh fruits and vegetables from the US, Mexico, and several other countries around the world. From the food production and distribution point of view, food security is not a concern in Canada. Food waste is rather a growing concern.

How would you describe the use of technology by farmers in Canada?

Canadian farmers are quite knowledgeable of technology and business management and farming is considered as an enterprise. Agriculture has become a very high-tech and sophisticated industry in Canada. They use cutting-edge technologies. Farms are highly mechanized and equipped with modern production technologies, including some precision farming practices. Production inputs namely quality seed, fertilizers and pesticides are available in abundance and these inputs are efficiently used to maximize the profit. Newer and appropriate technologies are used in greenhouse, livestock sectors and crop production. Farming is also market oriented. They focus on production of crops and livestock to meet the domestic and international market demands. Therefore, farming in Canada has progressed as an innovative career choice.

The federal government in Canada has strong research support while the provincial governments provide support on technology transfer. Innovation, competitiveness and environmental sustainability are considered as three important pillars of agricultural development in Canada. The government policy is to achieve profitable, competitive, innovative agriculture with higher rates of technology adoption and sustainable farming practices.

Canadian farmers have just four to five months to farm as there will be snow the rest of the year. What techniques/technology do they use to maximize their production?

It is true that Canadian farmers have only 4 to 5 months of growing window in a year for field crops production. Crops are generally planted in May and harvested in August-September. Still, in some years and in the northern locations, early season cold spills or frost can cause premature damage to crops. Therefore, only a single crop in a year is tightly possible. Within this limited growing season, cropping systems and crops are judiciously chosen for a successful harvest. Although the growing season is short, days are longer, there is abundant sunlight (radiation) and temperatures are adequate so that crops can accumulate more heat or energy in the shorter period and produce higher yields. Crop varieties with high yielding potential combined with better plant nutrients and pest management practices are the key components for higher yields. As winter time is extremely cold and mostly covered with snow and crop production outdoors is impossible, farmers have increasingly used commercial greenhouses and hydroponic facilities to grow fresh vegetables and fruits such as strawberries to meet off-seasonal market demands.

Climate change has been affecting farming across the world. How is the Canadian government working to cope with the impact of climate change?

Yes, climate change has affected farming everywhere and Canada is no exception. In recent years, Canada has experienced several effects of climate change including increased extreme events such as seasonal droughts, erratic rainfall events, flooding and tornadoes. Droughts and soil moisture deficits are expected to be more frequent and intense. There are also experiences of longer and warmer summers and milder winters, early snow falls resulting in increase in annual and seasonal mean temperatures. It is estimated that between 1948 and 2016, the mean annual temperature increased by 1.7°C for Canada as a whole and 2.3°C for northern Canada. 

An increase in climate variability and the frequency of extreme events would adversely affect the agricultural industry as climate determines pests and diseases incidences. Farming operations such as planting and harvesting of crops depend on consistent seasonal patterns. It is anticipated that the warmer winter may result in greater overwinter survival of pests and diseases, as well as a northward expansion of pests and diseases that are not currently found in Canada. Livestock farming is also a major component of Canadian agriculture and it is affected in terms of feed/grazing, water, and tolerable range of heat and humidity.

‘Canadian agriculture can be considered as a source of knowledge and an example of how land and available climatic conditions are best utilized for sustainable crop and livestock production.’

On the flipside, there may be some positive impacts of climate change in a country like Canada. There are likely some opportunities to grow warmer-weather crops that were never grown in the past. There is also an advantage of a longer frost-free growing season with increased temperature and atmospheric CO2, which can lead to higher crop yields and productivity.

There are three gasses that have a significant role in global warming and climate change namely carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N20). Agricultural activities inevitably result in emissions of these gasses. Carbon dioxide emission occurs mainly from crop residue decomposition, and fossil fuel in farm machinery combustion. Nitrous oxide emissions originate directly from field-applied organic and inorganic fertilizers and from the storage of manure when excess nitrogen becomes available. Methane emissions occur mainly as a result of enteric fermentation in ruminant animals and from the anaerobic decomposition of stored manure. Agricultural practices can help to slow climate change by storing carbon on agricultural lands and reducing the emission of N20 and CH4 gasses. 

The government of Canada is well aware of the threat of climate change and the role of the agriculture sector to minimize its effects. There is a dedicated department as “Environment and Climate Change Canada” to coordinate environmental policies and programs. The department of Agriculture and Agri-Food has also its programs and policies on mitigation and adapting to climate change. Scientists and farmers work together to adopt farming practices to tackle climate change. Canada is a leader in research and adopting conservation agriculture and reduced tillage practices, which is one of the most effective means of reducing CO2 emission. Storing or sequestering carbon in soil as organic matter helps to slow down climate change. Reduced tillage practices increase energy efficiency by reducing machinery use. Similarly, N2O gas is produced mostly from excess available nitrogen in soils. Adoption of practices of applying nitrogenous fertilizer judiciously and adjusting fertilizer rates with plant needs and applying at the right place and time is one way to suppress its emission. Agricultural research and adoptions in Canada are directed towards mitigation of climate change through agricultural practices. 

What do you think Nepal should learn from agricultural practices in Canada?

In addition to highly mechanized and scientific production systems and technologies, there is assured market, guaranteed prices, storage and processing facilities to the growers in the Canadian agri-food system. There is a system of land zonation such as residential, industrial, commercial, agricultural lands, park/recreational and forest lands among others which is very important in order to protect agricultural lands from being converted into residential or industrial areas. In contrast, because of the lack of such land regulation or lack of execution of regulation, the highly fertile and productive agricultural lands such as in Kathmandu valley, Pokhara valley, Chitwan and others are rapidly being converted into built-up or town areas, which is a great threat for agriculture in Nepal. 

Canada has a very strong regulation and compliance system in every aspect of governance. In the agricultural sector, for example, the use of agrochemicals (pesticides, fertilizers and hormones/antibiotics) and food quality control are well regulated. The defaulters are harshly punished. In contrast, there is no such regulation of pesticides and fertilizers as well as food quality in Nepal. As a result, we have been experiencing grave health and environmental hazards in Nepal.

Canadian agriculture can be considered as a source of knowledge and an example of how land and available climatic conditions are best utilized for sustainable crop and livestock production. Of course, there are several things that Nepal can learn from Canada but the key areas are four. First, protecting and consolidating agricultural lands. Second, regulating agro-chemicals and food quality. Third, adequate and timely availability of quality seeds, fertilizers, pest control products, and four, assuring market, guaranteeing produce price, and provisions of transport, storage and processing of farm products. 

Nepal has wonderful weather with sunshine for nearly 11 months of the year and monsoon for two to three months. How could Nepal take advantage of its weather?

Yes, Nepal has gifted climatic conditions and agro-ecological niches for agriculture. Diverse crops (from tropical to temperate) can be grown in a short span of distance. For any crop or plant growth, they need light (solar radiation), heat (temperature), water and nutrients. Solar radiation and temperatures are not limited in more than 60 percent of Nepal’s agricultural land areas (Tarai to lower mid-hills) for growing up to three crops in a year. There is a huge water resource but unfortunately, it is underutilized.

‘Given that irrigation, fertilizers, quality seed supply and pest management tools for the growers are assured, Nepal can fully utilize its gifted natural environment for agricultural production.’

Every year, the crop yields, especially rice and wheat, are impacted with the uneven distribution of rainfall. In other words, the majority of the crop production in Nepal is weather dependent and crop yields fluctuate greatly. If all irrigable lands in Nepal can be supplied with year-round irrigation, without any doubt, agricultural production can be easily doubled. Plant nutrition is another yield limiting factor in Nepal and there is always a hue and cry for fertilizers supply in the growing seasons. Given that irrigation, fertilizers, quality seed supply and pest management tools for the growers are assured, Nepal can fully utilize its gifted natural environment for agricultural production.

Do you see the prospect of the Canadian government helping Nepal in the agriculture sector?

Of course, there can be several areas where the Canadian government can help Nepal in its agricultural development. Canada has one of the strongest government-funded agricultural research systems in the world and it has world-class scientists in various disciplines. It can help in capacity building of scientists and strengthening institutions in Nepal. Likewise, Canada imports lots of agricultural commodities such as tea, coffee, ginger, cardamom, tropical fruits, herbs and spices  which cannot be grown locally from different countries. Canadian agricultural products such as canola, soybean, lentils, peas and chickpeas are already exported to Nepal. If trade between the two countries can be formalized and Nepali products are promoted in Canada, both countries can benefit immensely.

(Note: the views and opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent that of his organization he works for.)