The new farm technologies, introduced during the Green Revolution in the 60's, contributed a lot to boost production and feed the country's rising population.
Within several years, farmers and agriculturists noticed that modern technologies -- irrigated water, chemical fertilisers, pesticides and improved crop varieties -- adversely affected soil fertility, biodiversity and human health.
Use of excessive pesticide, hormones, preservatives and ripening agents in food in the last decade raised serious concerns over food safety.
“This has created a huge demand for organic food,” said Dr Nazim Uddin, coordinator of Bangladesh Organic Agriculture Network and also a farm scientist at Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (Bari).
Around 12,000 farmers produce organic food -- rice, oilseeds, honey, vegetables, meat, fish etc -- on some 7,000 hectares of land, which is only 0.19 percent of the country's total farmland. The number of organic farmers doubled in the last decade, Nazim Uddin told The Daily Star.
Producers and agriculturists said supply of organic food still lag far behind the demand.
“Though the prices of organic food are higher than inorganic items, consumers often complain of not getting organic food,” said Shaheen Khan, chief executive officer of Gemcon Food and Agricultural Products Ltd that runs supermarket chain Meena Bazar.
Farida Akhter, director of Ubinig, said the demand for organic food went up tenfold since 2009, and they failed to meet the soaring demand. Ubinig opened its organic food shop, Shashya Prabartana, in the capital in 2009.
WHY ORGANIC FARMING?
Nazim Uddin said farmland soil is composed of 17 nutrients and five percent of organic materials. However, excessive use of chemical fertilisers causes depletion of these natural elements in soil.
Organic materials in Bangladesh's soil came down to around 1 percent from 5 percent, while chemicals used in land leach into nearby water bodies and underground, polluting the environment, he added.
Use of pesticides and herbicides kills many soil microbes as well as insects and animals like dragonflies, frogs that eat up harmful pests and earthworms. The chemicals get into the food chain, causing serious damages to human health, the Bari scientist told this correspondent.
According to him, vermicompost, cow dung and rotten crop plants or leaves, used in organic farming, enrich soil.
Ubinig Director Farida said modern farming promotes monoculture, which extracts nutrients from soil, but organic farming contributes to multi-cropping. For example, if mustard oil, radish and maize are grown on a piece of land at the same time, their combined residues will make up good natural fertiliser for soil.
If crops were grown without using chemical fertilisers and pesticides, birds and beneficial insects would be in the fields to eat up the harmful insects, making it a natural pest control mechanism, Farida added.
These factors inspired many people to go for organic farming in Bangladesh, she said.
ORGANIC FARMING IN BANGLADESH
Non-government organisation Proshika first began organic farming in the country in 1976 on its land in Koitta of Manikganj. Over the years, it trained some 2.5 lakh framers on organic farming, said Proshika General Manager Kayes Shamim Polash.
After the devastating flood in 1988, Ubinig officials realised that the flood-hit farmers in Tangail were failing to restart farming as they had no seeds and capital to buy fertilisers and pesticides.
“Farmers were totally dependent on the seed, fertilisers and pesticides from multinational companies,” said Farida.
Ubinig then conducted a research and started training farmers on preserving local seeds and growing crops using organic farming methods.
Since then, over 50 NGOs and some business outlets came forward to produce and promote organic food.
NO STRONG MARKET LINKAGE
Farida said although the NGOs trained up farmers, who then started using organic farming methods, they could not establish a market linkage. Subsequently, many initiatives could not be completed, she added.
“Many farmers produce organic food, but we can't collect their produce and help them market as we can't operate like other businesses,” she said.
Some educated youths have got involved in organic farming. One of them is Delowar Jahan, a journalism graduate from Chittagong University. He along with some of his friends opened an organic food shop, Prakritik Krishi, in the capital in 2014.
“Being a small venture, we too have been facing challenges in managing the supply chain. We are working hard to overcome the challenges,” he said.
However, the case of Kazi and Kazi Tea is different. It began farming organic tea on a vast land in Panchagarh's Tetulia in 2000. Apart from the tea, certified by three certifying agencies of Europe, Japan and the US, the company also produces herbs, rice, oil seed, honey and vegetables.
“We are exporting organic tea to the United States, Germany and Japan. We are on the way to export tea to France,” said Syed Shoaib Ahmed, chief executive officer of Kazi and Kazi Tea.
According to him, his company's business grew by 114 percent over the last five years.
“It takes three years to turn the soil organic. We have dug canals along the farmland to prevent chemical ingredients leaching into the farm from nearby fields,” Shoaib said.
The company used neem and other herbs as natural pest controllers in the Tetulia farm, he added.
CERTIFICATION A NECESSITY
Shaheen of Gemcon Food said they mostly sell organic products grown in their farm.
“Many farmers come to us to market their organic products. If we are convinced, we get their samples tested by the Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research before selling those,” he told The Daily Star.
Certification of organic products is very crucial. Many might claim their produces to be organic and cheat consumers if there is no certification body, Shaheen added.
Nazim Uddin said the government last year approved Bangladesh Organic Agriculture Policy with a provision of forming a certification body.
Kayes Shamim of Proshika said there had been very little government support for organic farming.
“Promoting use of organic fertilisers should be a priority of the government if it really wants to promote the eco-friendly farming,” he observed.