Photo: Mumit M.

Feeding a Nation

Reaz Ahmad

Feeding an ever-growing population -- even an estimate of 142.3 million has been called 'unrealistic' by the government -- is one of the biggest challenges the nation faces. It is for this purpose that 18 million farming families are directly involved in food production.

The 30 million tonnes of food grain that we have been able to produce in the last couple of years fell short of meeting the annual cereal demands of roughly 160 million people, which is increasing by at least 1.8 million a year at the most conservative population growth rate estimate. Government statistics show we had to import over 5 million tonnes of rice and wheat in 2010-11 to supplement the domestic output.

When we report of such a daunting challenge, let us not forget that we had a food grain output of only over 10 million tonnes and a population of about 75 million when we were liberated as a new nation in 1971. In the last four decades, a pro-active farm policy coupled with farmers' hard work gave us a big boost in enhancing the farm productivity of the country, particularly in the crop sector.

Without a robust policy behind the resilient farmers' hard labour, it would never have been possible to nearly triple the cereal output in 40 years time and that too, fighting against the odds such as dwindling croplands, pollution and adversities caused by climatic changes.

The supports were not regime-specific; rather, all subsequent governments have done their respective parts in terms of farm-investments, providing subsidies and supplying farm inputs. But mostly the credit goes to the farming community, by far the largest private sector in Bangladesh, who weathered sun and rain, drought and deluge, Sidrs and Ailas to take our food security level to such a height.


Today, we can boast of having achieved a near-autarky level, even if not self-sufficiency, in food production. At the same time, farm-wise, we are situated in a very tricky position, where a slip by a notch can put us back into a heavily food import-dependent country and a little further upward push can take us to a level where we would no longer remain vulnerable to global food price volatility that the nations across the rice-eating Asia, particularly, experienced during the 2007-08 global economic meltdown.

It appears that per unit productivity increase is the key factor that can really bring some relief to farm sector challenges in Bangladesh. But, then again, all policy initiatives ranging from input management to output marketing, agricultural research management to farm engineering and new science applications -- everything has to be directed towards the end of rising per unit productivity.

The growth engine in farm-based economy got a first real boost after the 1971 Liberation War was over and our home-grown research stations like Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), Bangladesh Institute of Nuclear Agriculture (BINA) and Wheat Research Centre came up with highly productive major crop varieties resistant to pests, drought, salinity, submergence etc. This was possible as the subsequent governments adhered to the 'Green Revolution' policy of applying chemical fertilisers, irrigated rice cultivation and input-based farm management.

But now Bangladesh's agriculture has reached a crossroads. We need to really reinvigorate our farming policies that have, so far, heavily exploited the fast-depleting groundwater resources and also compromised with natural nutrient contents of our soil by depending heavily on chemical fertilisers and neglecting the strengths of organic and bio-fertilisers.

Due to land fragmentation and input-based farming culture, in many parts of the country, agriculture, in its subsistence level, is becoming increasingly difficult to handle by resource-strapped peasants. It is now in the process of transformation from subsistence farming to commercial farming. Over the last one decade or so, the non-farm activities in the countryside are picking up too, which is possible due to the farm sector's growth tempo. Still, agriculture contributes one fifth of the country's GDP, with an overwhelming contribution from the crop sector. About 63 percent of the labour force is employed in agriculture with about 57 percent being employed in the crop sector alone.

We're losing 82,900 hectares of cropland each year to give room for housing, industrialisation and infrastructure developments. When there were 70 million people in Bangladesh in the early '70s and there was over 3 percent annual population growth rate, yearly rise of population was 2 million; now that population growth rate has scuttled down to 1.4 percent, courtesy a nationwide vigorous birth-control campaign. However, nearly 1.8 million people are still being added to Bangladesh's population every year because of a large population base that we attained -- 160 million.

So if we want to maintain the last four decades' achievements in the farm sector and carry forward the ultimate mission of achieving food autarky and ensure food security, we need to chart out a fresh farm policy that would not only help boost the productivity but also care for natural resource degradation and rescue the farming community, particularly from the curse of increasing inward (north-bound) intrusion of southern saline water.

By minimising the yield gap, blending the blessings of new science in agriculture and biotechnology with that of home-grown environment-friendly farm technology, guaranteeing better input management, increasing investment in farm R&D, taking up innovative initiatives for farmers' welfare, crop insurance, changing rice-biased dietary habit, adopting and enforcing a farmland policy, overhauling the farm extension and marketing services, and policy lobbying against developed and developing nations' conversion of farmlands into bio-fuel fields, Bangladesh still holds great prospect of further improving its farm productivity.

Innovative Agriculture
In recent years, Bangladeshi agricultural scientists, plant breeders and researchers have made great strides in developing crop varieties resistant to salinity and drought and also those that can withstand submergence up to two-week. In June 2010, Bangladeshi scientist, Maqsudul Alam, a professor of the University of Hawaii, who earlier decoded the genome of papaya in the US and rubber plant in Malaysia, led from the forefront in sequencing the jute genome. This gene sequencing paved the way for improving the fibre's length and quality, including colours and strength, and for developing high yielding, saline soil and pest-tolerant jute varieties through genetic engineering.

Last year, Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) released three early-maturing varieties of rice -- BRRI dhan-55, 56 and 57 -- that can withstand up to a month of rainless days and moderate levels of salinity and cold bite.

BRRI dhan-33 and BINA-7 -- rice varieties developed by BRRI and Bangladesh Institute of Nuclear Agriculture (BINA) respectively largely contributed in diminishing the monga-effect (a seasonal near famine-situation) in northern Bangladesh. Hitherto jobless farm labourers could cultivate potato and vegetables in between two main rice crops now as newly released rice varieties mature early, thereby releasing cropland for other crops to grow.

Bangladesh also contributed from the forefront in shaping up the still under-trial world's first vitamin A enriched genetically engineered rice, called Golden Rice. Research is being done both at International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and at BRRI for developing Golden Rice, which is expected to fight vitamin A deficiency in expectant mothers and children through the most-consumed food item. The deficiency causes blindness and child death in acute cases.

The country's most productive rice variety -- BRRI Dhan 29 -- engineered at the IRRI in the Philippines with beta carotene-rich genes from corn -- was successfully field-tested at the IRRI in February this year.

Reaz Ahmad is News Editor, The Daily Star