11 days ago

Supporting small farmers to ensure nation's food security

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Small farmers, who constitute 28 per cent of the country's population and work on farmlands that have been shrinking at an alarming rate of about 16,000 hectares annually, thanks to unplanned urbanization, development work and expanding settlements, are obviously in dire straits. As they contribute in a big way to the nation's food security, protecting them involves preventing the agricultural lands on which they still work from further receding. At the same time, they would need policy support including cheap credit to procure the crucial agricultural inputs to continue with their farming activities. Needless to say, they would also need the support from the scientific community to come up with new farming techniques to make the best use of the agricultural land still available through preserving its fertility and increasing productivity by introducing newer varieties of rice and other food crops that can withstand the onslaught of climate change. 

All such issues of huge national significance were the subject of deliberations at a recent seminar hosted in the city by the government-supported policy think tank, Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS). The experts at the discussion could not agree more with the factors already delineated in the foregoing that are coming in the way of the small farmers' capacity to go on with their farming activities sustainably.  Consider the target of producing 47.2 million tonnes of rice by 2050, as projected by the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), which does research and develop ways to improve rice production. It may be argued that encouraging commercial agriculture more aggressively, the nation can meet that target using modern farming technology. But in that case, the challenge would be to protect the small farmers and their livelihood. In fact, protection of the small farmers also includes preservation of  their agricultural practices handed down from previous generations and the culture that go with them.

True, commercialisation of agriculture that requires investment of bigger capital promises higher profit. And that often comes at the expense of the existing farming practices that focus more on protecting the environment and the ecosystem of land, water, and the farming community than on just yield. And how thoughtless use of fertllisers and pesticides wreaked havoc on land fertility and agricultural ecology in the name of the mid-twentieth century's so-called 'Green Revolution' is now history.

A developing, land-scarce nation facing the challenge of feeding an ever-growing population, Bangladesh can ill-afford to put all its eggs in one basket. So, a mix of commercial, scientific and traditional farming culture would be required to protect the existing farming community as well as boost production of food grains. In this connection, discussants at the said seminar suggested bringing over 4.4 million hectares of land in 17 coastal districts under three-season cultivation. The policymakers in the agriculture sector need to think seriously about the idea keeping in mind that the worst challenge to food security will be coming from the country's coastal districts, home to around 29 per cent of the population. As rising sea level has increased salinity of coastal lands, the farmers of those districts will require such varieties of food crops which can fight salinity, floods and other vagaries of nature effectively.

Saving the small farmers is not just about serving a humanitarian cause. For it is important that a sector that accounts for 40 per cent of national employment is well-protected through necessary state intervention in the form of financial inclusion of small farmers so their living condition is improved. In that case, they won't have to switch to other professions or migrate en masse to the cities in search of a livelihood.

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