The growth of the country's farm sector has slowed down over the last five years and an expert from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) attributed this largely to the fall in rice production growth.
The sector registered a yearly growth of 2.3 percent in 2012-16, down from 4.7 percent in 2007-11.
In the past decade, the yearly rice output growth was 2.5 percent. Whereas, the growth was 4.1 percent between mid '90s and 2005-06.
Akhter Ahmed, who heads the Washington-based food policy think-tank's country operation, told a workshop in the capital yesterday, "The slowdown in agricultural growth needs attention."
IFPRI along with the Agricultural Policy Support Unit of the agriculture ministry and the USAID hosted the workshop to discuss the role of policies in developing Bangladesh's seed sector.
Agriculture Minister Begum Matia Chowdhury, top ministry officials along with scientists, academics, development partners and private sector representatives attended the workshop.
The farm sector contributes about 17 percent to the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employs more than 45 percent of the total labour force.
Currently, nearly 75 percent of the total 7.84 million hectares of arable land is being used to produce rice, thanks to land scarcity and people's rice-centric dietary habit.
Farmers grow two to three different crops from same land a year in different favourable agro-ecological zones and the total crop lands expand to over 14 million hectares.
Yesterday, experts told The Daily Star that with nearly no fallow land available for further expansion of farm output, any rise in the production would have to come from higher yields.
While explaining the matter, Akhter said rice cultivation had to be intensified and investment in agricultural research must be increased to promote rice productivity.
At a time when climate change is prominently impacting the sector, new technologies and innovations also had to be developed through research for addressing various agriculture-related problems, including flood, drought, and salinity-induced “stress” conditions.
However, there is a silver lining of this challenging situation.
Being one of the most “favourable terrain” for agricultural technology adoption, Bangladesh has the potential to enhance crop productivity -- if not through increased acreage, definitely through adoption of new yield-augmenting technologies.
An IFPRI-IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) study shows that with its vast irrigated farmlands and greater commodity market access, Bangladesh is the most “favoured” country in the South and East Asia for agricultural technology adoption.
But then again, Akhter said a twisted land tenancy system poses an impediment to quick adoption of new technologies.
A third of all farm households in Bangladesh are “pure tenants”, meaning they do not own the land they use. Therefore, they have insecure and unstable access to land through sharecropping or land-leasing arrangements, which act as a deterrent to technology adoption, he said.
The IFPRI country head thinks, "Policies should take into account the implications of this important constraint."
Talking to this correspondent, FM Moinuddin, head of Rice Farming System Division of the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, said they had succeeded in achieving much better yields of crops over the past few years.
He said they did it by growing diversified crops from the same land in the same cropping season through adoption of new technologies.
"But", he added, "We need to protect our remaining fertile lands from industrialisation, urbanisation and home-buildings."
Moinuddin said hundreds of brick kilns sprang up all over the country and each of them was set up cutting fertile top soils from agricultural lands.
Also, most productive farmlands were being taken away for building industries and housing, he said.
In March this year, the High Court even asked the government to formulate a specific law to protect the country's agricultural land.
AHM Humayun Kabir, managing director of Supreme Seed Company Limited, a pioneer in introducing hybrid rice in Bangladesh, said seed growers and agro-companies could contribute to growing more food with limited land and water resources as the government's relevant policy was supporting the private sector.
In 1971, Bangladesh had a population of 75 million and its food production was a little over 10 million metric tonnes. But today, farmers grow over 35 million metric tonnes of cereal crops, thanks to their adoption of modern farm technologies, policy support, better breeds and inputs and above all, a hard working farming community.
Over the past four decades, Bangladesh succeeded in outpacing the population growth rate with its growth in rice output. The country has more than tripled the production of its staple.
But the question has arisen whether the country has reached a plateau, where any further growth in farm outputs would be too hard to achieve.
A yearly increase of over three million population means more than half a million tonnes of extra crops have to be grown.
Agronomists fear that the rise in sea level would induce salinity into the mainland as salinity-affected arable lands rose from 0.83 million hectares in 1990 to 1.2 million hectares in recent years.
Agriculture Minister Matia Chowdhury, however, said the government had introduced application of biotechnology in the farm sector, developing stress-tolerant crops as a strategy to face climatic impacts on agriculture.