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     Volume 9 Issue 1 | January 1, 2010|

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Cover Story: Agriculture

Advancing Towards Food Autarky: But what's the Environmental Cost?

Reaz Ahmad

Bangladesh has more than doubled its grain output since 1971.

If attaining near-autarky in food production for an ever-increasing population represents a success story in Bangladesh, keeping the pace of farm productivity intact without straining the natural resources any further is a bigger challenge that we must face.

Thanks to Bangladesh's sustainable farm-friendly policies we have more than doubled the country's grain output since 1971, almost matching the growth of our large population. The truth is that had not Bangladesh's 18 million farmers toiled so hard to produce the staple rice, nearly enough to fulfill the domestic requirements the country would have been in big trouble trying to foot enormous import bills.

But the question is what is the cost of growing this increased volume of food? Are we overstretching ourselves in exploiting the nature's resources in achieving our short-term target of attaining food self-sufficiency by 2013 and not looking much beyond '13, and not weighing judiciously the environmental costs of degrading the farm-ecological balances?

Take the case of our 'Green Revolution' to enhance grain output from winter rice Boro that has depleted our groundwater to dangerous levels. By most conservative estimates a kilogram of winter rice requires 3,000 litres of water to be irrigated in the field. Now this becomes very taxing, as man-made obstructions and destruction of natural water reservoirs -- rivers, canals and ponds -- have left few options for using surface water for irrigation and over mining of groundwater has caused a steep fall in the underground water table.

Endowed with 'Green Revolution's blessings chemical fertilisers, high-yielding semi-dwarf rice varieties and pesticides Bangladesh alongside all other rice-based Asian economies fared well over the last four decades or so. But things have reached a point now where redrawing farm policies is a must, as we urgently need a balancing job to enhance farm productivity while at the same time save ecology.

As against 40 percent of our total annual grain production coming from rain-fed agriculture, we are now heavily dependent on the irrigated rice Boro (60%) for our national food security.

Agriculture Minister Matia Chowdhury could not have better-timed her announcement on December 22 that we must encourage rain-fed Aman cultivation, which is less costly than Boro farming that requires underground water irrigation.

“Let's try to move away from Boro cultivation through underground water irrigation and pay more attention to Aman,” Matia has said, expressing hope that if the farmers are provided with better seed varieties, inputs and farm management practices, Aman output would be augmented.

She observed that increased production of rice during monsoon will help reduce dependence on Boro rice, which will allow farmers to grow various other crops, such as wheat, pulses and oil seeds.

Matia's emphasis on Aman and enhanced use of surface water came at a time when underground water mining for irrigation and other purposes have led to alarming drops in the water table, causing arsenic contamination and ecological imbalance. Matia blamed policies that have favoured the use of underground water for irrigation instead of focusing on surface water, despite being a riverine country. “It is sad that our rivers and canals are not used for irrigation. Rather, we allowed the rivers to slowly die,” she said. “It was an anti-agriculture policy.”

BR11 Sub1 and Swarna Sub1 are two of the flood-tolerant rice varieties, now at final stage of release, in Bangladesh. These varieties can withstand up to 17 days of stagnant water in the paddy fields. Photo: Sheikh Enamul Haque

Late monsoon and erratic rain patterns, largely because of climate change and sea-level rise, however, make things more difficult as long as maximising production from the rain-fed Aman is concerned. Rains came late and was scanty too in 2009 monsoon failing the season's main rice crop in India forcing the world's second top rice exporting nation to import rice for the first time in two decades. Bangladesh too, suffered nature's wrath. However, farmers here could recoup losses to a large extent courtesy of a government policy move of providing them with free electricity that has allowed millions of Aman growers to water their perches by supplementary irrigation instead of waiting for rains to come too late in the monsoon.

Credit goes to the people engaged in agricultural research and development (R & D) that we could, at least, develop and release some very important seed varieties capable of fighting different stress conditions -- water logging, salinity and drought.

Some of the early harvesting rice varieties that Bangladeshi rice breeders developed i.e. BRRI Dhan-33 and BINA Dhan-7 helped mitigating the menace of monga (seasonal near-famine situation). These varieties can be reaped early thereby, providing landless farm labourers job opportunities during an otherwise, lean season.

BRRI Dhan-47 comes, at least to a certain extent, to the relief of coastal belt farmers beset by salinity. Agronomists fear sea level rise would induce salinity to intrude further into the main land as salinity-affected arable land rose from 0.83 million hectares in 1990 to 1.2 million hectares in 2009.

To equip farmers to fight flash floods and stagnant waters on croplands, a few 'waterproof' rice varieties are now at the final stage of official release. These can withstand up to 17 days of water logging.

Thus while innovation in crop species will be the greatest gift for our agricultural success story, the centrepiece of future agro-economic policy frameworks will have to tackle the issues of ecological balance and climate change fallouts.


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