According to the recently concluded United Nations Food System Summit 21 (UNFSS21), realignment of food system is needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals related to eliminating hunger and malnutrition in all forms, poverty reduction and sustainable management of natural resources. Food systems constitute all the activities and entities that are engaged in ensuring sustainable use and management of natural resources used in food production topost-harvest processes, storage, food markets, processing, food trade, consumption, nutrition, and health outcomes for all participating in the food system. In Bangladesh agriculture plays an important role for rural and economic development and structural transformation. Food system in Bangladesh is transforming rapidly but the direction and the pathways for investment are not clear.
Since independence, Bangladesh agriculture has moved from a primarily agrarian and low productive agriculture to a food self-sufficient economy through the adoption of green revolution technologies. This process reduced hunger and malnutrition, yet measures of malnourishment and hunger remain at unacceptable levels. By increasing productivity of crops and livestock, agricultural sector freed its underemployed labour force for other sectors such as manufacturing and services. These changes further expedited structural transformation in Bangladesh economy. Even today Bangladesh agriculture remains crucial to its development as agriculture and allied sectors contribute to livelihoods, employment and income for a large segment of rural population. About half of the population depends on agriculture but this agricultural sector's productivity and income are low compared to regional and global standards. As a result, about 20.5 per cent people still lived in poverty in 2019-20. So, raising productivity of agricultural sector further is essential to reducing poverty and advancing structural transformation in Bangladesh. Transformation of its food system can play a key role in this process.
Why should Bangladesh transform it food system? Bangladesh must transform its food system to address three ongoing trends: i) Changing demand for food commodities - more and more people are consuming high value commodities, and demand for processed foods is also increasing; ii) Changing demographics - a large segment of the population are youths and their preferences are different from older population. Urbanisation is also increasing at rapidly resulting in changes in the consumption pattern and marketing of the food commodities. iii) Climate change and frequent natural disasters require that the participants of the food system to become more resilient and manage their risks more prudently.
In all the above three areas, innovation can help farmers increase productivity and meet rising demand for food. Food consumption in Bangladesh has been increasing along with dietary preferences due to rise in income and urbanisation. As population increases, the demand for food will increase and as income of the people increases, demand for non-caloric foods including fruits and vegetables, animal products, dairy products, and fish will increase. As the productivity of agriculture sector increases, excess labour will move out of agriculture to manufacturing and services sector. This results in urbanisation which is a serious problem for Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, mostly men migrate to cities for work. This leaves a large portion of women to find for themselves in rural areas completely depending on agriculture for their livelihoods. Innovative programmes can help in increasing labour shortage in agriculture due to male migration to cities and reduce the burden of women in agriculture. For example, increasing the access to rental facilities for mechanical equipment can help without compromising the labour-intensive nature of agricultural operations. Food system changes resulting from climate related shocks such as drought, floods, and extreme weather conditions, for example, will affect women disproportionately. Such changes call for food system realignment through policies and strategies. Other areas of agriculture such as intensive use of chemical fertilisers and plant protection chemicals can also be altered through policy and programme choices. These issues have high resonance with the recently concluded UN food system summit. Yet, the follow up actions to the UNFSS21 in Bangladesh need discussion to set priorities for investments.
Helping farmers cope with climate change and its effects on agriculture and food systems is another area where urgent action is needed. Building resilience of the food system through early warning systems and reducing farmers' risk from natural shocks through innovative insurance programmes can help, given that food production system in Bangladesh is rapidly moving towards high value agriculture. Investments such as early warning systems for extreme weather can help government agencies and agricultural producers prepare for such climate change. According to FAO, in 2019, timely information on floods in northern Bangladesh saved vulnerable communities and facilitated government functionaries to mobilise needed resources and supplies preventing major losses.
In this context providing farmers with timely information on production, storage, processing, marketing, and process related information also becomes crucial. Protecting vulnerable farmers and making food system transformation inclusive requires moving towards digitisation of agriculture. Finally, food system transformation requires appropriate evidence based policies that support adoption of innovations for climate smart research and development.
Market-oriented development through research and innovation is key for next phase of agricultural growth in Bangladesh. Investing in innovation, strengthening the capacity of institutions and pursuing policies for sustainable food system transformation can not only achieve the SDGS related to hunger, poverty and malnutrition, but can also help in increasing the resilience to climate change, restoring environment and biodiversity, and making the development process inclusive of gender, youth and vulnerable populations.
Md. Tanjil Hossain is Associate Professor of Economics , Jatiya Kabi Kazi Nazrul Islam University & Executive Director, Economic Development Research Organisation ( EDRO). Suresh Chandra Babu, is Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC.