After making remarkable progress in the past few decades, Bangladesh is faced with the unforeseen challenge of the Covid-19, like all other countries, but the pandemic hit the economy the moment the nation was set to celebrate the 50th anniversary of independence. In such a critical situation, we need to work out how the pandemic-hit economy could be brought back to a growth path and also imagine how Bangladesh would look like in another 50 years.
Although Bangladesh is increasingly becoming an industrial and service economy, agriculture still forms a big proportion of national output and workforce. The farm sector accounts for about 15 per cent of the gross domestic product and accommodates over 40 per cent of the labour force.
And if any single sector helps the Bangladesh people survive during the crisis like the pandemic it’s agriculture. Therefore, it is not only critical for feeding the future but also for offering scope for value addition contributing to other sectors as well.
Bangladesh has been blessed with fertile arable land and water resources – both surface and underground. Seasonal diversity makes it an agro-friendly country. Since independence in 1971, Bangladesh has almost quadrupled farm output especially grain production.
Bangladesh’s achievement of national food security in spite of repeated disasters and steady population growth has been widely appreciated. Having a productivity growth of one of the fastest rates in the world since 1995 – an average of 2.7 per cent annually, just second to China, – the country’s agricultural sector has benefited from a rigorous and steady policy framework.
Yet, the country’s agriculture is constrained by increased pressure on arable land, lack of farmers’ profitability, the dominance of the middlemen, inadequate access to resources, and environmental challenges.
Ageing of old farmers, lack of interests of the younger generation in farming, and lack of adequate incentives are likely to pose challenges to the future agriculture of Bangladesh. Already, the sector often suffers from the shortage of labour when farm mechanization is far below the expected level. Thus, Bangladesh’s agriculture may face a new kind of crisis despite the potential for diversification of crops and non-crop items and higher farm productivity. Labour availability for the Bangladesh agriculture sector is expected to reduce to about 36 per cent by 2020 and 20 per cent by 2030, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). It added farmland is depleting at a rate of 0.50 per cent a year.
Post-harvest loss of crops is also a matter of concern, says Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss (PHLIL). The country loses almost 14 per cent of the paddy due to this problem. Also, loss of productivity due to dividing lines of small plots is huge: Around 290,000 hectares of additional cultivable land or 2.0 per cent of national arable land could have been added.
Once an agrarian country, Bangladesh needs to combine the processing industry and distribution and sales with modern farm practices to make the agriculture sector sustainable. Forming a food system through diversification of the farming, forestry, and fisheries industry is also important for Bangladesh.
In view of trends and suggestions by experts, we can conclude that the next 10 years will determine whether the country’s agriculture will develop or decline throughout the next 50 years. We can offer some foods for thought.
Introduction of agricultural machinery and successful demonstration of the benefits is already done in the country’s context. Our farmers have limited financial resources to avail the benefits of mechanisation. So, a partnership-based asset financing model; and a system that efficiently turns agricultural machinery to where it is needed, can ensure a rapid increase in adoption as the machines’ full capacity employment can reduce the relative cost.
Location-based diversification of products as brands
Staple products aside, farmers tend to produce the same products when someone else succeeds by introducing them. Within a few years, the market becomes saturated and prices often fall. In order to increase agricultural income, it is necessary to increase the variety of attractive crops along with their brands.
Public organisations and authorities like the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) and Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC) have the resources and scope to promote diversification on a local unit basis. Internationally, Bangladesh is recognised for only a few products e.g. rice, jute, mango of Rajshahi, tea of Sylhet and now Panchagarh. The geo-location-based diversification and branding can increase value both locally and internationally.
Production of safe food
Pesticides and chemical fertilisers are necessary for the stable production of agricultural products. However, there are a prevalence of environmental hazards and soil contamination caused by overuse, too.
Proper standards of reduced use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers should be ensured. Promotion of alternative methods should target the complete replacement of present flawed methods. Because safe food is beneficial for both producers and consumers, considering their economic and health benefits.
Market systems integration
Connecting the producers with industries at different levels of the supply chain removing the middlemen through a well-designed and practised mechanism can ensure expected price transfer, reduced waste, efficient secondary processing, and farmers’ welfare. This requires involvement of more stakeholders from all tiers of the market.
Reduction of waste, loss of surplus crops
Creating and introducing a system to produce retort-packed food, canned food, bottled food, and dry processed food can reduce wastage and loss of surplus crops. Again, mechanisation can solve the issue with post-harvest farm-level loss of crops and reduce it at an insignificant margin.
Reuse of discarded items
In Thailand, once discarded banana leaves are now being processed to make wallets and bags. Products that are sustainable and green, are more likely to attract consumers locally and elsewhere. So it is necessary to reconsider what is being discarded.
Reforms in land-related law, policies
Big corporations from home and abroad will be more and more interested in investing in Bangladesh in future. But, attracting them and accommodating them for industrial farming requires a lot to do with our land laws and policies. Farmers’ welfare should also be kept in mind.
Barrister AnupSomadder, who is working on farm issues, said “Aail (lines dividing land) is disadvantageous for us in two ways- 1) it is a waste of arable land, and 2) agriculture machinery cannot perform efficiently. Once it was necessary for marking ownership and conserving water for farming. But, now we are way ahead from those times.”
He insisted that the Ministry of Land can solve this issue should there be a political will. “We expect the policy-makers to discuss such matters in parliament.”
Promotion of innovation
Production and use of the newest form of biofertilizer, use of solar power, multi-storied farming, climate adopting innovations, farming method innovations, etc. should be promoted and patronised both in public and private sectors.
To achieve these goals, commitment, persistence, and well-designed strategies are needed. The country needs to create a system to support the farmers and ensure their welfare through cooperatives. Also, the participation of women should be prioritised in the process of farm mechanisation.
Hossain Mohammed Omar Khayumis a writer and researcher in the field of development.
Shinya Nishimura, Managing Director of Formulate Co., Ltd. and Chairman of Somadder & Sons is working for nearly three decades in Bangladesh on agricultural know-how and technology transfer involving Japan. He can be reached at [email protected]