The Financial Express


Worries over farmland depletion

-File photo -File photo

Over 69,000 hectares of agricultural land have been shrinking annually due to rapid industrialisation, unplanned urbanisation and increase in rural settlements. Such a situation is pushing the country's food security at risk.

A report on the loss of agricultural land based on a study indicated a regular and increasingly declining trend in land available for agriculture. Between 1976 and 2000, around 13,412 hectares of agricultural land was lost in Bangladesh.

In the subsequent period from 2000 to 2010, over 30,000 hectares of land was lost in only ten years. Rapid urbanisation with new roads and highways, as well as the growing population are occupying a vast tract of agricultural land.

However, through the efforts of Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) and the Bangladesh Agriculture Research Council (BARC), the country' crop production per unit of land has considerably increased year by year. This has helped to negate the effect of the continuing decline in availability of arable land all over country.

As urban areas worldwide continue to grow, the population spreads to the surrounding rural and suburban areas. This puts pressure on farmers to give up their croplands and fields so that houses in the countryside can be grown.

The loss of agricultural land to urbanization means an increase in environmental problems such as air quality, transportation problems, loss of critical habitat and green space, and a degradation of water quality.

Another reason that agricultural land is lost is because of soil degradation. Soil degradation is the loss of a soil's natural fertility. When this occurs, the productivity of the land decreases, without added use of fertilizers and other chemicals.

In fact, urbanization affects food production in two ways-by removing agricultural land from cultivation, as cities expand, and by reducing the number of family farms, as more farmers move to cities. The spread of cities alone consumes enormous tracts of farmland in much of the world.

 As for Bangladesh, long-term outlook appears to be bleak as unplanned growth of population is complicating the process of meeting the demand for food, basic health requirements and educational facilities -- triggering unemployment and social unrest. The prospect is really discouraging as diminishing resources are failing to meet the needs of increasing population.

What is alarming is that the country, with the world's highest density of population, is fast losing arable lands due to growing industrialisation and rapid encroachment of human habitat on farming areas. The country's fast growing population is now looking for new land to build homes while entrepreneurs are going to the remote areas of the countryside to set up factories.

There will be no cultivable land left in Bangladesh in 50 years if lands are taken away for non-farm purposes at the current annual rate. If the trend is not reversed now, the country would permanently lose its food security, making its poor population more vulnerable to volatile international commodity prices.

In order to reverse this trend, the government has taken some steps including banning use of arable land for purposes other than agriculture. This is no doubt a laudable step. A high-level committee suggested that the factories and educational institutions that have already been built should now go vertical, instead of grabbing more arable land.

The dwindling size of farms, rise in landlessness and constant depletion of farmland are posing formidable challenges to Bangladesh's agriculture, increasing poverty and trapping many ultra-poor people in a vicious circle. The average farm size has been reduced to less than 0.6 hectares and the percentage of landless people stands at 58 in a country where nearly 80 per cent of the ultra-poor live in rural areas.

Worries about farmland depletion at an alarming rate have fallen on deaf ears, while calls for ensuring optimum utilisation of arable land and bringing fallow lands under cultivation remain in rhetoric alone. A long-pending suggestion to bring slight changes in crop pattern for diversifying agriculture remains unattended by the policymakers.

Such decline in arable land is worrisome. The authorities concerned should go for regular surveys of arable land to present an accurate figure so that necessary steps can be taken to save this land. It is quite a gigantic task, but it should be done at regular intervals with due attention.

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