24th Anniversary of The Daily Star (Part 1)

Agriculture: Technology gives boost

Photo: Star

In the last 40 years the amount of arable land has shrunk at a rate of 1 percent per annum. In the last 40 years many natural sources of irrigation water have dried up permanently. In the last 40 years saline water has crept up on vast tracts of agriculture land in some areas. In the last 40 years our population has doubled from 7.5 crore to over 15 crore. And yet, the country has been producing enough food-grains to feed the entire population. This is an amazing feat by any definition. 
Only one thing can explain this phenomenon. Some kind of revolution has taken place in Bangladesh in the agriculture sector. It is true, that initially after the birth of Bangladesh, the sector was not finding the right directionfor some years. Food-grains had to be imported to supplement local production. There were pockets here and there in the country where draught brought misery to human life, but the governments of the day as well as non-government organisations jointly worked to not allow the situation to escalate to the level of a famine. Now, it is all in the past. 
It is proper planning, relentless research by our agro-scientists, application of scientific knowledge, and timely financial and logistics support from the Ministry of Agriculture that made it possible to increase food production and feed such a huge number of people. The present government, during its tenures in the past and at present, gave top priority to the development of the agriculture sector as they were wise enough to realise that food on the plate was the very first thing people needed every day.Awami League, since its first term in 1996, found a very dynamic leader in Begum MotiaChowdhuty to lead this sector, who was far-sighted and who never hesitated to take radical decisions to develop the vital sector. The results soon started to become palpable enough to bring smiles on the faces of the farmers and everyone else involved in the business of agriculture.   
Today, we find stacks of rice sacks along with various other agriculture produce in the shops throughout the country. People get to buy staple food, cash crops and seasonal vegetables at an affordable price. We are also regularly exporting vegetables to Middle-Eastern countries. As said before, only proper planning ahead of each crop season with timely support coming in the form of fertiliser, water and seeds can ensure reaching the desired targets. The role of the Ministry of Agriculture and its affiliated organisations thus has to be orchestrated well in line with the mood of the climate and other natural and man-made conditions in order to have a good harvest.  
Agriculture experts are confident that in 2015 total yields of all kinds of agriculture produce will not only reach but in some cases exceed the envisaged target. Already farmers are getting good harvests of wheat, maze, potato, sweet potato, pulses and mustard which exceed by far what they had expected before planting the seeds. There has also been bumper production of all sorts of vegetables in the past years in the country. December to January is the season for developing the boro rice seedlings and farmers have been successful in planting those in favourable weather. The target this season is to cultivate boro rice in 4.8 million hectares of land. The uninterrupted supply of electricity is helping farmers in getting the desired amount of irrigation water almost everywhere. Farmers reaped a good harvest of wheat this year which has generated greater keenness in them to grow more wheat again next season. Experts feel that if farmers continue to get all the support from the government the country will witness another agricultural revolution soon. 
A number of factors worked behind the success in the agriculture sector, but experts believe the government policy to provide subsidies and support farmers through providing equipment and necessary materials like fertiliser at affordable prices, steady supply of irrigation water, high quality seeds, etc. are the prominent ones worth mentioning. There have been no major reports of pest attacks or various diseases so far that afflict crops and vegetables. Therefore, to feed 15 crore plus people regularly, it is doubly important to introduce innovative ideas, policies and technology for the development of the agriculture sector because no matter what, at the end of the day people will want food. And a government loses popularity fast if it cannot ensure food on everyone's table. For any Bangladeshi government this is supposed to be the scariest part of governance. 
With this bleak reality looming before the Ministry of Agriculture, planning intelligently is the only option left to them.  More land has to be brought under cultivation of staple crops as well as cash crops, and the policy of providing subsidy to farmers has to be upheld. If we look at the statistics, the present government did take care of these factors since coming to power in 2008. It reduced the price of DAP to Tk 27, from Tk 85; MOPto Tk 15 from Tk 70; TSP to Tk 22 from Tk 80. The government took the decision to reduce the price of non-urea fertiliser and of phosphatic fertiliser and potash in three instalments. What is more amazing is that the country exported some varieties of seedlings and also some scented rice in 2014.
Minister for Agriculture, Motia Chowdhury said last year in a meeting of economists that if the government had not given subsidy to farmers, the country would have had no option left but to import rice. She also said that giving 25 percent subsidy to mechanisation has helped in solving the problem of farm labour to a great extent. Referring to adoption and application of latest crop science and technology in the agriculture sector, the minister had commented, “If our agro scientists had not developed high yielding varieties of crops like rice and wheat, it would have been difficult to ward off famine in the country. Though our scientists have developed varieties of crops, the sense of direction changes with the change of government. At such times scientists feel at a loss. If a scientific project is not allowed to continue then it creates problems for the scientists and the country in the long run.  In 1996 I saw BR 11, and coming back six years ago saw the same BR 11. That means no better variety has been developed and marketed since then. That means if the scientific research works are not brought forward by the government and the private sector, we shall face problems. 
The world food growers will not feed us with their excess production. Food aid has also reduced. WFP gives money with instruction to buy our own food. We buy food from internal sources and give it to the poor. We do not get food from outside. Countries producing excess crops are going for biofuel. They will not sell or give that excess crop but will use it as biofuel. This is the global reality today. Therefore, whoever is in power has to pay attention to research and development and increase funding. My request to those in industrialisation is to come forward and help in R&D in agriculture.” 

Regarding labour market she said the following in the economic forum: “I believe the solution is in mechanisation and arranging capital for farmers. The government is doing this with great farsightedness. Our farmers have cards now; they can open a bank account with only Tk 10 with that card and can get agricultural loan for farming seasonal crops. One thing I want to mention is that the system of taking loan from mahajons against interest no more exists in the rural areas. The mahajoni loan system abolition was possible through introducing this card and opening of bank accounts. Through these accounts we can know how many people want to take agriculture loans, how many utilise it properly and what is the actual need. In the last four years no one reported anything on mohajoni loan. It was possible because of this government's well-planned strategy. 
Our scientists are doing research work on temperature tolerant, stress tolerant and salinity tolerant wheat. As a result we are going for wheat cultivation in Faridpur, Shariatpur, Madaripur and Barguna. We introduced maize (bhutta) cultivation after the floods of 1988. I want to say that we are open-minded about GMO. As a result, BT Brinjal is now available in the market.” 
It may be mentioned here that the specialty of Bt Brinjal is that the farmers do not need to spray pesticides on it.Usually, farmers have to spray pesticides up to 80 times in a cropping season of brinjal against a recommended dose of 25, making the vegetable highly toxic. The new varieties developed by the scientists of Bari are: Bari Bt (Uttara), Bari Bt (Kajla), Bari Bt (Nayontar) and ISD006 BtBari.
During the distribution of the plants among the farmers at Bangladesh Agriculture Research Centre, the Agriculture Minister said, “We have decided to start cultivating B tBrinjal after different necessary tests at home and abroad. We took a long time to experiment all pros and cons for introducing the cultivation of this variety”.  She emphasised the necessity of introducing GMO crops to ensure food security of the people but ensured that the government is always alert of any kind of negative reaction to public health and the environment. It took seven years to complete greenhouse trials and open-field trials of Bt Brinjal in various agro-ecological zones in the country. Bt gene insertion in brinjal makes it resistant to fruit and shoot borer (FSB) that causes 50 to 70 percent loss of brinjal yield. With the journey of cultivating BtBrinjal, Bangladesh has joined a group of 29 countries that grow GM crops.
The minister further told the meeting that the soybean oil we are using is pure GMO. In her words, “GMO is the future of our agriculture. We are also doing GMO with two varieties of potatoes to save them from late blight disease. Let me add one more thing, bananas will become GMO too. We shall take forward scientific research and mechanisation and we shall give required capital to the farmers. Besides rice and wheat, our oil seed production has increased, we are giving loans at 4 percent interest to farmers to grow spices, onions, garlic, turmeric, gingeretc. 
Let's try to visualise agriculture in future. Agriculture will not be dominant in the northern part for long. Looking at the number of land ports, electricity production, road network etc. there will be more industrialisation there. As the agriculture minister in 1996, I used to procure rice from Mymensingh. Now Mymensingh is not in the list of sources for rice procurement. Dhaka has now extended up to Mymensingh. Future of agriculture lies in the south, whether it's cereal, crop agriculture, vegetable, or aqua culture. The problem in the south is salinity, tidal surge, and water logging in some places. This government will discourage boro cultivation in the upland. It takes 3,200 litres of water to produce 1 kg of boro rice, so we cannot support this. We shall encourage boro in mono crop areas like haor areas with availability of surface water. We have heard about rain-fed aman crop cultivation. We have turned away from aush rice because of boro. Aush is stress- tolerant and it requires little water. Rice is being harvested in Bangla months of Aghrayan and Poush. But what about where there is no boro? Aush used to come between boro and aman as an intermediary crop. When there is no rain we may go for supplementary irrigation, for a little period.  I have asked our scientists in BRRI to work with aush rice so that it can come as a crop in between the two. So, with aman, boro and aush we shall fill our cereal food basket.  Also we shall produce wheat and maize.” There is no denying the importance of agriculture for a country burdened with a huge population  but having limited natural resources. The government will have to allocate the required finds for the development of climate-tolerant rice, wheat, pulses, corn and vegetables. There can be no hesitation or policy lapse in providing farmers full support on the fields during each crop season because loss of one crop will take us back to square one. We cannot take any risk with our agriculture. 

The writer is Editor, Special Supplements, The Daily Star.


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