‘We do not have food security. We are only secure in rice production to an extent’

It is often said that Bangladesh has attained food security even though we continue to import a large number of essentials from the global market, leaving us susceptible to the vagaries of global price volatility.

Recently, The Business Standard talked to Dr Mohammed Asaduzzaman, former research director at Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS).

The agro-economist talked about why we lag behind neighbouring countries in terms of agricultural productivity, dependence on food import, loss of agricultural land and other issues. 

Our agricultural productivity is reportedly lower when compared to neighbouring countries. Why do you think that is?

Let me define agriculture first. Agriculture does not mean crops only. Rather, agriculture comprises crops, fisheries, livestock and forestry. People in Bangladesh always think about only rice when it comes to talking about crops. The reasoning goes like this: ‘We have become food-secure, meaning, we are self-sufficient in rice production’.

Actually, food security is ensured when we have adequate vegetables, fruits, protein and other kinds of cereals, besides rice, for proper nutrition. But we are not emphasising the nutritional requirements when talking about food security. 

The past government and also the incumbent one have claimed that ‘Bangladesh has become food-secure’. That’s not true. We are not food-secure yet. However, to some extent, we are secure in rice production. But even in rice cultivation, our productivity is lower than most other countries, as you have pointed out. 

I will explain the primary reasons. We have old-fashioned technology. When we first initiated technological change in agriculture in the late 1960s, high-yielding rice varieties emerged in the local market. Farmers took up the options, amid some difficulties regarding the supply of fertiliser and lack of irrigation facilities.

Over time, many things have changed. But still, farmers in general don’t know the use of balanced fertiliser and the best practice in irrigation. They are not adequately efficient.

Farmers in Bangladesh usually use three tonnes (3,000 litres) of water to produce only one kilogram of rice. In most other countries, the amount of required water is not more than two tonnes (2,000 litres). In some Southeast Asian countries, the rate is 1.5 tonnes (1,500 litres). 

When you have to buy water, and you use water in such a wasteful manner, your efficiency and productivity obviously go down.

Our rice imports from India jumped in the last couple of years, and we are now heavily dependent on India. As we discovered during this Ukraine crisis (we are heavily dependent on Ukraine and Russia for wheat import) the weakness of depending on a single source, what are your observations on why and how we can diversify our import sources?

Ukraine and Russia are the major exporters of wheat. Of the food grains that Bangladesh imports, much of these are wheat, not rice. As you have said, we try to import rice from India as much as we can because the cost of import is much lower and the types of rice that we eat are also produced in India. 

There are some Southeast Asian countries that produce a lot of rice. But we are not accustomed to the varieties cultivated there. Culturally, the Southeast Asian rice varieties are not popular in Bangladesh. 

But the question of import dependency remains. The government loves to claim that we are self-sufficient in rice production. On the contrary, a top policy maker recently raised the question that if Bangladesh is self-sufficient in rice production, why would we import rice? 

Production and getting the product to the market is not the same thing. The problems in Bangladesh lie here. You hear talks about market syndicates. And there are some problems with the marketing system. Unfortunately, the issues have not been fixed in the last 50 years. We talk about it, but nothing changes. 

Agriculture marketing is the weakest part of the whole agricultural system.    

As industrialisation grows, and more and more land is allotted to industrial zones, what can the country do to address the loss of agricultural land and what risks are involved?

Industrialisation is unavoidable. The question is how we can make industrialisation as land-friendly as possible. However, there are many other reasons behind land loss. It is not simply industrialisation. 

We know about Balu-kheko or sand traders who lift sand indiscriminately from the foreshore. Some anthropogenic factors are equally responsible for river erosion and land loss. We have to also think about other undesirable societal processes that have not been curbed so far, and so land loss continues.

Moreover, industrialisation does not necessarily mean that it will need acres of land. Much of the industries can be condensed into small spaces. We must learn to accommodate industries in a limited zone by innovating or importing new technologies. 

The vendors in public and private sectors may suggest their preferred technologies in the infrastructural development. But these sectors do not have the capacity to independently verify whether the technologies are suitable and environment-friendly.

Of course, some kinds of industries like shrimp processing farms need a lot of land. But the ready-made garments industries do not require huge land. Why don’t they expand factories vertically? 

The government should think about it. When the industries are given licences, they must inform the government about the type of factories they are setting up, the technologies that will be used, and how good these are in terms of efficiency.

Mohammad Asaduzzaman. Illustration: TBS

Mohammad Asaduzzaman. Illustration: TBS

Mohammad Asaduzzaman. Illustration: TBS

Is the Ministry of Industry capable of monitoring or verifying the information submitted? I would suggest that the authorities build such capacity.
Industrialisation is also leading to labour shortages. What can be done to address this?

Historically, industrialisation attracted manpower from non-industrial, as well as informal sectors. Take the case of the industrial revolution in England. To adjust to labour migration, the country took almost a century. Japan had adapted to such a situation in nearly 50 years. 

But now, the transformation may take hardly five or seven years because new industrial ideas and technologies are coming out. The information is available online. And we can access the information from anywhere in the world. So we can start an industry within a few years. 

Overseas employment is another reason for the low presence of young people in the agriculture sector. Youngsters think they can go to the Middle East, earn a lot of money, and send remittances. Why don’t they invest their labour in Bangladesh? Because they are not compensated adequately. There should be a comparable compensation system. The compensation we give the skilled farmers in the country is not comparable to what they would earn abroad. We have to think about this. Through productive efficiency, you have to lower the cost of production; then, you can pay a high salary to the skilled labourers. 

I am sure that the industrial policy has all of these in words. But these are not implemented. 

Are there any lessons for us about a shift to organic farming based on what happened in Sri Lanka?

I don’t know much about the Sri Lankan style of organic farming. Many countries, though, are showing interest in organic farming.

However, organic farming in countries like Bangladesh has little potential. Unfortunately, again, the issue of skills comes in, because organic farming is a more skilful job. Secondly, productivity will not be very high. 

You must have high productivity. Otherwise, the cost of production will increase, and you won’t find a market. If you don’t have a market, why produce organically?  

This is not simply about producing some rice and consuming it by yourself. Whatever you will produce under organic farming will have to sell it in the market, and there is little chance of profiting much. 
Unless you are productively efficient, you cannot do it very well because the production cost will not be low. So, not many people will be able to buy your products.


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