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Volume 2 Issue 4 | May 2007



Original Forum Editorial

Month in Review: Bangladesh
Month in Review: International
The end of corruption?-- Rehman Sobhan
Fixing the power problem -- Mamun Rashid
The third decade of Saarc-- Sridhar Khatri
Ensuring the people's right to know-- Sadrul Hasan Mazumder
Photo Feature
Burma's generals dig their heels in-- Larry Jagan
American Mamlukes-- M. Shahid Alam
Reflections on April-- Syed Badrul Ahsan
Feeding the nation -- Mahbubul Islam Khan
It's no joke
Music and poetry (original translation) -- Rabindranath Tagore
Bad girls and middle-class morality -- Rubaiyat Hossain
Washington Irving and Islam -- Syed Ashraf Ali


Forum Home


Feeding the nation

Increased agricultural production is not the magic bullet for food security, argues Mahbubul Islam Khan, creating space for the poor and marginalized is

Food insecurity is often perceived mainly as a problem of insufficient domestic food production. This partly explains why national governments and developmental NGOs of many food deficit nations, with assistance from donor agencies, tend to be overly preoccupied with increasing domestic food production.

Bangladesh does not seem to be an exception to this. It is assumed that, other things remaining the same, increased domestic food production lowers food prices, which, in turn, helps in increasing accessibility to food of food insecure households, a majority of whom are net buyers of food items. Generating growth through agricultural research and dissemination of these through agricultural extension systems remain the cornerstone of public sector production enhancement strategy; while NGOs tend to target small-scale farmers and focus on promoting growth through farm technologies and management practices.

With countable exceptions, food security projects and programs have been overly technical, focusing on increasing production of food crops through promoting high yielding varieties of seed, hybrid seed, use of chemical fertilizers, irrigation, and improved farm management practices.

In addition to investing in generating and disseminating technical solutions to insufficient aggregate production, the government of Bangladesh (GoB) also undertook a series of agriculture sector reforms in the past couple of decades. Many of these reforms were aimed at deregulating and privatizing previously state-controlled agricultural input markets, and withdrawing subsidies in phases from agricultural inputs (e.g. chemical fertilizers, mechanized irrigation pumps).

However, in recent years, a reversal of this trend can be observed, with GoB reintroducing subsidies on a few agricultural inputs (e.g. chemical fertilizers, power supply for promoting mechanized pump irrigation). Private sector entrepreneurs were encouraged and supported to take over the agricultural input distribution systems. In order to stabilize prices soon after harvests and to build buffer stock, GoB intervenes in food grain markets through buying directly from the farmers. It also channels agricultural credit to farmers through nationalized commercial and specialized banks. Side by side, many NGOs operate collateral free credit programs for food insecure households.

As a result of emphasis on technical solutions to insufficient food production, and greater incentives for private sector involvement in agricultural inputs distribution systems, considerable technological advancement took place over the past two decades in Bangladesh agriculture. Wider coverage of irrigation facility in general, and ground-water mechanized pump irrigation in particular, led to significant increases in cropping intensities. Spread of high-yielding varieties of seed and chemical fertilizers has also been significant. Although rice-focused production-oriented strategy did help in increasing aggregate rice production, this did not happen without significant costs in the form of loss of bio-diversity, degradation of natural resources and contamination of ground-water tables.

There is strong evidence that intensive rice mono-cropping, increasing and imbalanced use of chemical fertilizers, indiscriminate use of synthetic insecticides, and unplanned expansion of mechanized pump irrigation caused considerable and irreversible degradation to the natural resource base. Heavy emphasis on rice crop seriously undermined the research and development of other important non-rice crops, such as pulses and oil crops, as well as other sub-sectors such as livestock and fisheries. If one puts aside the damage done to the natural resource base, technological advancement and privatization of input distribution systems did contribute to significant increases in aggregate food production in severely land- scarce Bangladesh, which is now close to achieving self-sufficiency in aggregate food grain production.

The unintended outcomes
Despite all these gains in aggregate food production, an unacceptably high proportion of Bangladeshis still remains food insecure. Hunger, malnutrition, and poverty persist and remain widespread, affecting millions of people. According to latest estimate, around 40% of the140 million people of Bangladesh still live below the poverty line, and the poorest 14 percent are recognized as being ultra food-deficient.

In neighbouring India, which transformed itself from a food deficit to a food surplus country, a sizeable portion of its population is still deprived of three decent meals a day. This means that food insecurity is not just a function of domestic production, rather it is strongly linked to entitlement to food. A country may produce and/or make enough food available in aggregate terms by increasing commercial imports, but a significant portion of its citizens may remain food insecure due to inadequate purchasing power, which is a major determinant of food entitlement.

Poor people's entitlements to food are considerably constrained by political, social, economic and environmental forces that tend to operate against them. Therefore, in a food deficit and land scarce country like Bangladesh, where agricultural productivity still remains significantly low and unabated environmental degradation continues, technical solutions to increase production can certainly help, but these need to be environment friendly, with no significant adverse effects on the natural resource base. However, techno-market solutions per se are unlikely to achieve food security for a large number of hungry and malnourished people, unless some deeper causes of insufficient food production and accessibility are addressed.

Identifying the most vulnerable populations
The largest category of food insecure households is the unskilled agricultural wage labourers. More than 60% of Bangladeshi rural households are either entirely or functionally landless. They mainly depend on wage earnings to maintain livelihoods. Given the predominant agrarian nature of the rural economy, and relatively underdeveloped non-farm sector, wage employment opportunities for unskilled rural labourers are directly linked to the local agricultural production systems. For example, an area which is relatively developed in agriculture with irrigation facility and higher cropping intensity generates more agricultural wage employment than an agriculturally depressed area. As agriculture generates seasonal employment with peak and lean periods, agricultural labourers suffer from high variability in income.

Agricultural labourers are subject to more income variability than their urban counterparts, because seasonal ups and downs in labour demand are not as strong in urban areas as they are in rural areas. The second category of food insecure households is small and marginal farmers (including tenant farmers e.g. sharecroppers) who are mainly dependent on farming to maintain livelihoods. This group represents deficit farmers, and is unable to produce enough food mainly because of limited access to land and/or because of the exploitive terms and conditions under which they farm.

Those who are engaged in non-farm sectors e.g. artisans, porters, construction workers and petty traders can be categorized as the third group. Their incomes tend to suffer from significant variability, and are insufficient to buy adequate food. In terms of extent of food insecurity, women-headed households, indigenous communities and households with chronic illness of breadwinner and high dependency ratios tend to suffer most. Food insecurity in lean periods tends to be severe in some geographic areas.

Some examples are the remote and relatively inaccessible areas of Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT) region, some parts of Nilphamari, Kurigram, Lamonirhat, and Jamalpur districts, most char and haor areas, and high barind tract areas in greater Rajshahi district. People living in drought prone areas tend to be more vulnerable to food insecurity than people living in flood prone areas, as agricultural production tend to be higher in the latter. In urban settings, the floating population, including the street children, are the worst sufferers of food insecurity.

Lean periods and their impacts
Generally speaking, two lean periods linked to agricultural production cycles are observed in rural Bangladesh. The first lean period usually corresponds to Falgun to Baishak (mid February to mid May), and the second to Bhadra to Kartik (mid-August to mid-November). During lean periods, demand for agricultural labour and wage rates go down drastically in many parts of the country. Kartik is considered the most severe of the lean months. During lean periods, the poor households adjust the number and quality of meals (e.g. consume low-grade food and in less quantities than in normal periods), and male members tend to migrate from villages to cities and towns. Empirical studies show that women and girls adjust meals more than men and boys. During the lean periods, the poor households tend to dispose of assets, including livestock, and borrow from friends and relatives and sell labour in advance. Lean periods in some northwestern parts of Bangladesh are felt quite strongly, and they are commonly known as <>monga<>.

Relationship of people with land
Land is an extremely scarce resource in Bangladesh. Per-capita availability of cropland is only 0.24 acres, which is extremely low by any standards. Added to this problem of land scarcity is relatively skewed land ownership pattern. The top 5% of families having more than 7.2 acres own 26% of the land, while 70% of families having less than 2.5 acres own only 29% of the land. A significant portion of land is cultivated under share-tenancy arrangements, most of these arrangements are exploitive of tenant farmers and do not provide adequate incentives for them to invest in land and increase productivity.

Moreover, tenant farmers are subject to eviction from sharecropped land anytime by landowners as sharecropping law is hardly enforced. The sharecropping law provides for equal distribution of output produced in sharecropped land between landowner, sharecropper and input supplier, and a minimum five-year guarantee to cultivate sharecropped land as long as a sharecropper continues to provide due share to the landowner. A sizeable portion of large landowners is absentee owner, They live in the cities and towns. Large landowners usually have multiple sources of income, and they tend to see land not only as a means of production but also as a source of status and power in the countryside.

As observed by Jannuzi and Peach (1990): "The traditional land system of Bangladesh is one in which a dominant minority of landholders has secured rights to land, whereas the majority in rural areas have either tenuous rights to land or no land at all. Those having secured rights to land seldom work on it, or make investments for its improvement. Instead, they assign labour and investment functions to actual tillers, who can be evicted at the superior landholder's will. Within the framework of this system, with ownership and control of land traditionally separated from labour and investment, neither the owner nor the tiller of the soil has a strong incentive to increase productivity."

Denial of access to common property natural resources
Poor households are often denied access to common natural resources, e.g. khas (government owned) land and water bodies. According to an estimate, there are 43,000 acres of khas land spread over the country. Although khas land distribution policy gives poor households preferential access, in practice it is the powerful rural elite who tend to monopolize access to khas land. Information on khas land is often not updated and difficult to access.

A significant portion of khas land remains unidentified. Inadequate information coupled with inaction from the duty bearers (who have declared responsibilities to identify and distribute khas land among the poor households) result in illegal encroachment on khas land by the powerful. Common water bodies are seen as a source of revenue for the government, and these are often leased out to the non-poor who have better access to cash and information, and are well connected with officials who make decisions with regard to leasing.

Leakages of safety net programs
A considerable portion of the hardcore poor (e.g. physically disabled, elderly, chronically ill) is unable to participate in economic activities. Therefore, market interventions aimed at increasing access to food are unlikely to benefit them significantly. They depend on others for maintaining livelihoods and live on transfer incomes. GoB operates safety-net programs for the hardcore poor. Union Parishad, the lowest tier of the local government, is involved in identifying and selecting beneficiaries of major safety-net programs. However, there is evidence of considerable leakages from safety-net programs, and ample scope exists for improving targeting in terms of geographical areas as well as beneficiaries.

For example, the monga affected poor households in northwestern parts of Bangladesh deserve greater allocation of resources under the safety-net programs. Realization of the benefits of greater resource allocation calls for better targeting and improved efficiency and coordination among institutions and organizations engaged in safety-nets programs at multiple levels. Without a significant improvement in downward accountability and transparency at these institutions and organizations this is unlikely to happen.

Key gaps in agricultural research and extension systems
Public sector agricultural research and extension systems are reasonably developed in Bangladesh, and they provide the bulk of research and extension services to the farmers. During the era of the green revolution, gains in productivity attributed to agricultural research and extension were concentrated in reliably rain-fed or irrigated areas. Farming in risk-prone, complex and diverse eco-systems (e.g. char land, coastal and hill tract areas) was insignificant or modest at best. It means that most benefits of relatively large investments made in agricultural research and extension went to farmers with better resource endowment.

Generally speaking, agricultural research systems tend to be top down, crop specific, external chemical input intensive and to a great extent gender insensitive. Space for farmers' participation in determining agricultural research agenda and priorities has been limited. Emphasis of research on field crops has benefited male producers more than their female counterparts. Homestead production systems and post-harvest activities, which tend to be the domain of Bangladeshi women, received relatively less attention from agricultural researchers.

A holistic approach to farming (paying due attention to highly mixed farming systems, where not only rice is grown as field crops, but also poultry, and cattle are raised, vegetables and trees are grown in and around homestead land) is seldom adopted in defining research agenda. Recommendations of new farm technologies are not always based on a careful and scientific investigation on how they interact with diverse activities that take place in a farm and fits into the existing farming systems. Many farm production technologies were developed and tested in isolation. In making recommendations, high variability of ecosystems, within which farmers operate, was largely ignored. As a result, standardized packages of farming practices that were developed and promoted often became inappropriate under farmers' conditions. Emphasis on long-term sustainability of the natural resource base and preservation and maintenance of bio-diversity were largely inadequate. Agricultural extension systems tend to serve easily accessible and better off male farmers. Links between agricultural research and extension, which is necessary for providing regular feedback to researchers on farmers' needs and priorities so that research becomes demand-led and thus become more meaningful, has been weak. Strong focus on increasing rice production and productivity and a neglect to innovate in farming practices undertaken by women reduced the impact of agricultural research on alleviating poverty.

Limited access to markets
Increased agricultural production does not automatically mean increase in revenue and welfare particularly for small-scale farmers. Smallholders are compelled to sell agricultural produces at primary markets soon after harvest to meet emergency need for cash (e.g. repaying loans), when prices of agricultural produces tend to fall drastically. In many cases, for small-scale growers with relatively underdeveloped communication and transport systems and small marketable surpluses, accessing secondary and tertiary markets becomes cost ineffective. Agro processing facility is also grossly insufficient. Agricultural product markets are either disintegrated or loosely integrated, which partly explains unreasonably high price differentials particularly for non-rice crops. Moreover, small-scale growers have limited access to government run procurement centers. These limit market outlets. Agricultural input (e.g. chemical fertilizers) supply systems remain insufficiently developed and are unable to maintain steady supply of good quality inputs at the doorsteps of farmers especially, in remote areas. Shortages of agricultural labor are being increasingly felt in certain parts of the country during peak agricultural seasons (e.g. boro paddy harvesting). Spatial differences in agricultural wages are also significant. Substantial scope exists in improving the functioning of labor markets by making market information available in labour surplus areas and facilitating labour mobility.

Inequitable agricultural finance systems
With increasing intensification and commercialization of agriculture the need for finance capital can hardly be over emphasized for cash-starved smallholders. An overwhelmingly large part of borrowings for smallholders still come from friends, relatives and local moneylenders. The interest rates levied by moneylenders are exorbitantly high. Accessibility of small-scale farmers to formal financial institutions are restricted by cumbersome loan sanction and disbursement policy and systems and hidden cost involved in loan sanctions. Recognition of credit worthiness of small-scale farmers is yet to be adequately reflected in policies and practices of formal agricultural lending agencies. All these result in monopolization of loans from agricultural lending institutions by better off male farmers. Sound policy reforms can help small-scale producers to access funds from formal financial sector adequately. Agricultural lending agencies also need to be kept out of political influence. Politically motivated decisions to write off agricultural loans not only reduce the capital base of lending institutions but also discourage borrowers to repay loans in time.

Non-farm rural economy
Given the current rate of un-and under employment and the large number of labourers that enter labor market each year, Bangladesh agriculture is unlikely to absorb them, even if it grows significantly faster than its current growth rate of around 3% per annum. In order to create adequate employment opportunities for rural laborers Bangladesh needs a strong and dynamic rural non-farm sector integrated with the more dynamic and export oriented parts of the economy. Investment in physical infrastructure (e.g. roads, electricity and telephone) and removing economic and non-economic bottlenecks (e.g. threats from local musclemen) that hinder investment will significantly help to promote rural industrialization.

With availability of cheap labour and considerable potentials of increasing production of certain vegetables and fruits such as potato, tomato and pineapple, agro-processing appears to be one of the promising areas. A right mix of policy and technological support can achieve a breakthrough in agro processing industry leading to increasing Bangladesh's meager shares in export markets of processed food items. Innovations in widespread micro-credit programs to better suit the financial needs of economically active hardcore poor can deepen and diversify their engagements in non-farm income generating activities and contribute to consumption smoothing.

Increasing availability of food grain by innovating and disseminating advanced agricultural technologies and practices is albeit necessary. However, relentless pursuit of growth augmenting technical solutions could seriously damage the natural resource base, negatively affecting future generations to grow enough food to feed them. Moreover, technical solutions need to be friendlier to risk averse, cash starved small-scale and women growers and more location specific. Given that poverty and hunger are more concentrated in certain geographic areas, a deliberate attempt to focus on innovating solutions to agricultural production in those areas is imperative to increasing the impact of agricultural research on food security. Biases against small-scale growers observed in public sector extension services are to be removed.

However, technical solutions alone are unlikely to sufficiently address the problem of food insecurity. Some of the underlying causes of hunger and food insecurity (e.g. exclusion based on gender, ethnicity and class, non-responsive governance, rights denial, discrimination, skewed ownership of productive resources) need to be addressed. Without creating sufficient space for the poor, who bear the brunt of poverty and hunger, to raise their voices and influence decisions at multiple levels that affect them, it is unlikely to achieve significant breakthroughs in increasing the responsiveness of relevant institutions and organizations to the poor, marginalized and vulnerable communities within a reasonable timeframe.

Mahbubul Islam Khan is Governance Coordinator, Care Bangladesh. Views expressed in this article are his own.

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