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     Volume 5 Issue 102 | July 7, 2006 |

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Cover Story

Mustafa Zaman

Scientific progress and technical advancement have revolutionised agricultural production in many countries, improving food security and boosting exports. Bangladesh's agriculture, however, has not seen such spectacular success and continues to limp with conventional cultivation methods. But burdened with an outrageously large population that is quickly gobbling up cultivable land, Bangladesh needs to exploit the benefit of science more than anything. Through years of research, modern lab facilities and a devoted bunch of talented scientists Bangladesh Rural Agricultural Committee (Brac) has developed high yielding seedlings of rice, vegetables, maize, fish fries and tissue culture of fruits and flowers. The artificially bred seedlings developed by Brac yield several times more production than the natural seeds our farmers have been dependent on for years. If these successful discoveries can be fully exploited, Bangladesh's fortune may change forever. For the better, of course.

Hybrid rice - The Farmer's Dream
2001 saw a watershed discovery in rice cultivation. Brac discovered a hybrid rice variety GB-4, aptly named Jagaran, which means a kind of awakening. Its full-fledged marketing began the very next year, in 2002. Jagaran's production rate was around 20% higher than BIRI-28 and BIRI-29 of Ufshi type rice, the reigning varieties until then. In 2005, Brac made its second successful discovery when it came up with another hybrid rice called HB-4. Its commercial name was Aloran, roughly translated as something that creates a stir.

Azizul Huq, who has been leading Brac's research in rice, gives some statistics to underpin the impact this hybrid rice has made. The high and healthy yield of this hybrid variety almost instantly attracted the farmers. In 2005-2006 about 700 metric tonnes of Aloran seedlings were marketed which was then cultivated in 57,000 hectares of land. With 20% higher production an additional amount to the tune of 85,000 metric tonnes rice was produced in that amount of land, Huq notes. The demand for this seedling is skyrocketing. "We have set a target of marketing 1400 metric tonnes seedlings in 2006-2007," Huq adds.

Rapid urbanisation and population growth are shrinking the area of cultivable land constantly. In 1971 when rice was cultivated in almost 100% of the land, the country's population stood at just seven crore. After 35 years, rice is cultivated in 70% land while the population, and with it the demand of food, has doubled. What is needed now is the optimum use of the available land and the best way to do this is by developing hybrid rice, Huq suggests emphatically. High yields aside, hybrid rice is more profitable than ordinary or natural rice in many other ways. "A farmer needs just 29 days to go from seed to cultivation in case of hybrid rice while for ordinary seeds it takes 165 to 170 days," Huq shows the comparison.

The yield is also at least 20% higher for hybrids than ordinary varieties. Again, though hybrid seed costs more than Ufshi seed, one needs to use just 6 kg of hybrid seedlings in one acre of land against 10-12 kg of Ufshi seeds in the same area of land, Huq explains.

Brac's artificial breeding, if can be applied widely, has the potential to develop the country's livestock resources.

The More Veggies the Better
In Bangladesh, vegetables are almost seasonal crops save some three to four types of vegetables, almost all other types are grown in winter. Even those grown in the winter are not of the highest quality, neither are they impressive in terms of production rate or yield. Experts blame it on the absence or scarcity of high yielding quality seeds. Given the substantial gap between the demand and supply we may not be far away from importing vegetables. But vegetables have great prospect with high demand both in the local and foreign market and can prove to be a potential foreign exchange earner, says Abu Bakar, who is in charge of vegetable research.

One problem as far as vegetable production is concerned is that there is approximately three months in winter for vegetable cultivation. "So what we in Brac first attempted to do is to extend that cultivation period by incorporating a couple of months just before and after winter. After years of research, Brac discovered high yielding vegetable seeds which can be grown just before and after the winter. For example, we had come up with high yielding karola seeds that can be grown even before the original karola (bitter gourd) season starts, Bakar says.

Not only bitter gourd, Brac has discovered seeds of many other varieties of vegetables that can be grown over a much extended period than winter such as those of jhinga, lau (gourd), eggplants, mishti kumra (sweet pumpkin), ladies finger, radish, green beans, cucumber, spinach, pui shak, lalshak, kalmi shak, cauliflower, cabbage, carrot etc.

But why would farmers bother to use the Brac created vegetables seeds? Firstly, with these seeds farmers can grow vegetables both in the off and peak seasons. Secondly and more importantly, Bakar adds, these seeds are much more productive and grow up in quicker time than the regular ones. Jhinga normally takes 60 days to yield but Brac's seeds yield in 45 days, Bakar says. Early harvest not only allows the farmer to catch the market before others. Since these seeds take lesser time to grow the farmer can get his land released and so can start preparing for the next crop earlier than usual, Bakar explains.

There is another plus point about Brac's seeds, Bakar claims. Since Brac markets its seeds after thorough examinations in its lab and applies the needed refinement, their chances of catching diseases are very small. Quality- and look-wise too the final products of Brac seeds are not in any way inferior to that of natural seeds. For example, seeds of ladies fingers from Brac always stay green while the usual ladies fingers often have white or yellow spots, which are rejected by the retailers, resulting in the vegetable growers' financial loss. In case of tomatoes, the presence of more water in the natural variety causes them to spoil fast; the fleshy part in Brac's tomatoes is much larger than that in the usual variety. Contrary to popular belief, these tomatoes or for that matter any other product of artificially created seeds retain quality and taste of the natural product, insists Bakar.

Again similarity in size and shape of products of artificially grown seeds make them easier to package and carry while exporting. Since they tend to rot later than their natural counterpart they are automatically chosen for export, Bakar argues.

Mono-sex method in growing fish fries has resulted in quality fish production of rui, katla, prawn and tilapia

Fish Fries - When Less Means More
Fries of the tilapia fish take only three months to become adults and reproduce. Which means, if a fish cultivator starts with one hundred fries he will have two hundred tilapia fish within a matter of three months -- one hundred adults and another hundred fries. Though such quick growth and high fertility of tilapia apparently appear very profitable for the farmers, it is actually not. The problem arises after three months, when the tilapia population of a certain pond doubles, but the pond area remains the same, creating a few problems. Firstly, though the cultivator doubles the food quantity, it is not equally distributed among the fries and adult alike. The space constraints make mobility difficult and again, the scarcity of oxygen, due to the dense habitation hampers the proper growth of the fish. Consequently, even if the fries are of good quality, the yield does not get as healthy as they could have become. As a result, the cultivator also loses financially.

Brac's labs are equipped with state-of-the-art instruments

Mokarram Hossain and his fellow fisheries experts solve the problem in the following way. Instead of putting male and female tilapia together they separated them and put either only male tilapia or female in a particular pond. Consequently there is no chance of reproduction and the number of fries remains the same at any given time. More importantly, they can grow big and healthy allowing the cultivator to charge good prices for them. And, if the cultivator wants to grow some fries he can put the male and female tilapia in a separate pond.

The same formula can be applied to cultivation of other varieties of fish like rui, katla and Brac's Fish Research programme has shown it in practice. Over the years Brac has been successfully applying this mono-sex method to new varieties of fish, the latest addition being fresh water prawn.

Hossain informs that it was the government who first took this initiative of cultivating

Rice grains from Brac's hybrid rice seeds are healthy and do not get diseased as those of conventional rice seeds

large size prawn fries in the early nineties. The cultivation of prawn was an instant hit with the fish cultivators, who found it a profitable enterprise/venture. But the initial enthusiasm died out all too soon. Shrimp farms started to get closed one after another due to scarcity of fries. In 1994 Brac started cultivation of galda shrimp experimentally in Jessore and the same year they produced 1.2 million galda fries. In 2006, Hossain informs, the post-larvae fries production reached 32 million. Now, about 27,000 metric tonnes of galda shrimp is being produced in some 43,469 acres of land. About 7,000 metric tonnes of them are exported and each kilogram of them fetches about $12/13, he adds. This has opened up huge prospects for shrimp export from Bangladesh as fresh water prawn has a huge demand in both local and foreign markets.

The tilapia was first brought to Bangladesh in 1954 from Ireland. Bangladesh Fish Research Institute and World Fish Centre jointly came up with a quickly growing variety of tilapia called 'Gift', but this artificially bred tilapia variety did not live up to expectations. It was then that Brac introduced mono-sex tilapia cultivation. Brac imported some 450 fries of 30 species from Malyasia, which they kept in eight nucleus ponds in its tilapia hatchery in Magura. It was a big success and apart from tilapia, Brac has also successfully produced high quality fries of rui, katla, mrigel, sarputi, silver cup etc, Hossain says.

The concept that fish is a natural wealth is an old belief. The fact that we still have fish in the market, in whatever amount is due to high breed fish culture. If the high breed fish can be spread all over the country and the field level cultivators can be trained about the know-how we will once again become the fish eating machhe bhate Bangalis we are known for being.

Getting Farmers interested in Maize
Though mainly used as a poultry feed, it is liked by many and more significantly, as experts would have us believe, Bangladesh has the potential of becoming a big maize producing country. Maize is not originally a Bangladeshi crop, and was brought into the country only about 30 years back, in 1975. The Agriculture Extension Department brought a number of composite maize like Barnali, Shuvra, Mohor, Khai at that time, but low yield, ignorance about the cultivation method and problem in marketing hardly interested the farmers to go for maize cultivation until 1992. In1992, Brac for the first time took the initiative to bring hybrid maize seeds in the country. Brac imported five metric tonnes of maize seeds called Pacific-11 from Pacific Seed company and distributed

Jagaran and then Aloran, two hybrid varieties Brac came up with, have seen a remarkable rise in rice yield

them among farmers through its regional offices. This hybrid maize seed yielded double than composite ones did, so farmers began to take interest in maize cultivation. As a market was created and it was increasingly expanding, Brac in 1997, brought parent seeds from Pacific and for the first time created hybrid maize seed Pacific-11. Over the next few years, Brac imported a few other varieties of maize seedlings such as Pacific-984, Pacific-983, Pacific-747, Pacific-759 and then started to make those seeds on their own.

But buying parent seeds of the hybrid maize from Pacific Company every year meant huge costs. Pacific, moreover, has to be paid royalties too and thus a big amount of foreign exchange is spent, says Azharul Islam, Senior Manager (Maize Research), Brac Seed Firm. In 2000 Brac revamped its research on maize and collected about 100 germplasm of maize over the next few years from International Maize and Wheat research Centre, Mexico. In 2004-05 Rabi season, Brac distributed its 250 kg just-invented hybrid seeds among the farmers and in 2005-06 had a demand of 10 meric tonnes. Healthy kernels from top to bottom and very thin khosha beneath the moucha made it popular with both farmers and buyers. Islam hopes the next year they will be able to sell 30 metric tonnes of maize seedlings.

At present Bangladesh produces about five lakh tonnes of maize against an annual demand of 10 lakh tonnes, Islam reveals. The demand is always increasing and if these high quality hybrid seeds can be popularised at the farmer level Bangladesh can very well meet that demand and go even beyond that, Islam says confidently.

Fish would vanish from the Bangali's menu without hybrid cultivated fish, which are bigger in size

Getting the Most out of Artficial Breeding
Though artificial breeding is not a new science, Bangladesh is far from exploiting this means for the development of the country's cows and goats resources. Abdur Rouf points out that the government has done artificial breeding of about 20 percent of a total 60 lakh cows that are fit for breeding. The government has used liquid semen for the

Owshadhi-11 made from Stevia plant has multiple benefits for diabetic patients

purpose, but has faced a variety of problems with it. It cannot be preserved for more than two days and has very low production and consequently cattle growers gradually grew reluctant to use them, Rouf says. Brac established Brac Bullstation in Mymensingh in 1999-2000 and discovered frozen semen, which, Rouf points out, is easy to preserve. It does not require electricity to preserve it. All it needs is liquid nitrogen, which is easily available. Frozen semen can be preserved for 20-25 years and retains the reproducing capability of the parent and has good productivity, he says. Brac has bred about five lakh cows so far with a reproduction rate of 61.5 percent. Brac's success has directly benefited some 6,000 people of some 1000 families. Brac is also working on goat breeding. Brac has initially distributed goat semen among its registered farmers and the success rate of the artificial insemination is around 60 percent, he adds.

Brac's maize research cell in Brac Seed Farm in Bagura's Sherpur has discovered hybrid maize seeds, which from their good yield, are gaining in popularity

The other arena where Brac has made significant contribution is tissue culture. The Plant Biotechnology Laboratory of Brac in Gazipur has been the home of a number of remarkable discoveries in tissue culture since 1998. Led by Dr MA Razzaque Shah, tissue culture specialist, the plant has come up with high quality potato, banana, jackfruit, as well as five types of flower, mainly decorative ones, such as Orchid, Gerber, Anthurium, Carnation and Chandramallika, a hanging plant and Cactus.

For good crop one needs good seeds. The reason why farmers do not often have good yield is because the seeds which they get in conventional way are often not of the highest quality. With many regular seeds the crop easily fall victim to insects. Seeds made through tissue culture retain all the good qualities of the parent plant but is free from all the weaknesses. Consequently, the issues of tissue culture seeds are mostly disease-free; size and shape wise too they give much better results, Shah explains.

Shah however names their successful production of a medicinal plant, which they have named as "Brac Owshodhi-11". In English it is called Stevia. Leaves of this plant have great medicinal values. These leaves are sweeter about 250 to 300 times than sugar and they do not have any calorie," shah explains. "One can pluck leaves just 25 to 30 days after the plant is sowed and they can be chewed raw," he says. The leaves can also be dried and made into powder to be preserved in bottles. It can be an alternative source of sweet for diabetic patients who can consume it with betel leaves. Shah also points out that these leaves keep diabetes in control, help in insulin secretion, prevent high pressure and tooth decay.

Brac's biotechnology laboratory plant are also experimenting with foreign species of flowers which can be successfully grown in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is known for its fertile land. However, we have failed to make the best out of it mainly due to our ignorance of advanced cultivation methods. Though the developed world has been enjoying the benefit of hybrid seeds, artificial breeding, tissue culture that have literally revolutionised yield, for years, Bangladesh is still lagging behind. Brac has shown that Bangladesh can also take advantage of these modern cultivation methods by applying them in the respective fields. If the government or other non-government organisations take the cue Bangladesh might not be far away from achieving food autarky.

Shamim Ahsan and Kawser Soheli
Photos: Rashed Hasan

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