Agri successes to stay if challenges met
The country's agriculture has reached a crossroads where successes can be rejoiced but those could be short-lived if certain challenges are not met.
Given the huge gap in land-people ratio and indication that the population would not stabilise anytime soon, the success Bangladesh achieved could be at risk of slipping back.
The cautionary note was sounded by agriculturalists, policy planners and experts from home and abroad at a two-day international conference that began yesterday morning at the capital's Krishibid Institution Bangladesh (KIB).
President Abdul Hamid addressed the opening session of the KIB's Fifth National Convention and International Agriculture Conference 2016.
In two plenary seasons in the afternoon, panellists appreciated that Bangladesh is now able to feed over 160 million people, while it had to struggle to feed 750 million people after its emergence as an independent country in 1971.
They, however, cautioned that the country's population is unlikely to stabilise before reaching 220 million, and that feeding the huge population with limited land and water resources would be a tough job.
The experts called for protecting farmlands from being lost to housing, urbanisation and industrialisation.
On top of this challenge, there is an 'aging factor' of farmers.
Presenting a keynote paper titled “agriculture in changing scenario”, Jacqueline Hughes, deputy director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), said farmers across Asia are aging, which means the average age of farmers are on the rise.
"In Bangladesh the average age of farmers are now over 50, and in the Philippines it is over 60," said Jacqueline.
She strongly advocated "encouraging young people in farming and making farm produces profitable to address this 'farmers' aging' problem."
The IRRI DDG suggested that a decision may have to be made at one point of time to "get rid of all those bunds [that make the farmlands fragmented] and put the farm system under big machineries."
Housing and Public Works Minister Mosharraf Hossain proposed making a law, prohibiting conversion of farmlands for non-farm activities.
He also suggested halting the use of topsoil at brick kilns.
Dr Rafiqul Islam, an institutional and water governance expert at Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 Project, said, "We can't afford to lose any more agricultural land. Successes in agriculture could be short-lived. More than 56 percent people would live in urban areas in Bangladesh by 2050 and there are challenges of climate change."
Echoing the emphasis laid in a presentation on “Blue Economy” by the foreign ministry's Marine Affairs Secretary Rear Admiral (rtd) Khurshid Alam, Dr Rafiqul stressed the need for a planned mining of the vast untapped marine resources.
Khurshid said the country's sea resources are untapped and foreign fishermen "are taking away our marine resources. We have to develop our expertise and explore deep-sea fishing."
In his speech, President Hamid said that in order to ensure food security, it is necessary to give importance to developing new varieties of food grains compatible with the changing climate.
Matt J Curtis of USAID, Bangladesh referred to the decrease in rice acreage in recent years in some parts of Bangladesh and said "diversity is required for proper nutrition."
In the USAID's “Feed the Future” command areas in south-western Bangladesh, there have been positive changes in terms of poverty and stunting reduction due to different interventions that helped people diversify crops and empower women, he added.
Former food minister Muhammad Abdur Razzaque, who chaired one of the two plenary sessions, was critical of the falling overseas development assistance (ODA) in farm sector.
"There was a time when we used to get 20 percent of the ODA in agriculture. It has come down to four percent now."
Even some of the leading agricultural research institutes are going through fund crunch these days, he said.
Akhter Ahmed, senior research fellow of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), said Bangladesh developed the world's first biofortified zinc-rich rice varieties with the potentials of addressing child mortality and stunting.
Farm sector in Bangladesh is propelling the growth of non-farm sectors as well. For instance, it is helping grow the farm and irrigation machinery repair and service sector, added Akhter.
In another keynote presentation, Mike Robson, representative of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in Bangladesh, put emphasis on safe food and referred to manpower shortage at Bangladesh Safe Food Authority (BSFA).
State Minister for Finance MA Mannan, former vice chancellor of Bangladesh Agricultural University Dr MA Sattar Mandal, immediate past pro-VC of Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University Dr Shahidur Rashid Bhuiyan, and Dutch Embassy official Arman Akbary Khan, among others, took part in panel discussions.
Fisheries and Livestock Minister Sayedul Hoque and Krishibid Institution Secretary General Mobarak Ali also spoke in the opening session chaired by Krishibid Institution President AFM Bahauddin Nasim.