20th Anniversary Suppliments Archive

Self-sufficiency in rice: A continuing challenge

Dr. A. M. Choudhury

Photo: Amirul Rajiv

PERHAPS rice whose Latin name is Oryza sativa originated in China where there is evidence of 8,000-year-old rice. 90 per cent of the world's rice crop is grown and almost entirely consumed in Asia--32.8 per cent of it in China, 26.6 per cent of it in India, 10.2 per cent in Indonesia and 6.8 per cent in Bangladesh. Rice is the staple food for half of the world's population. Even a spiritual leader like Lord Buddha said “Of all diseases, hunger is the greatest. There is no other treasure equal to that of rice.” This region experienced great famines like the famine of 1770 (Chhiattarer monnonthor- Bangla Shal 1176) and the Bengal famine of 1943 (Panchaser monnonthor- Bangla Shal 1350) when millions of people died. In 1770, there was no rain until August. People could not cultivate their land which was abandoned. In 1943, there was shortfall in the rice production which together with war procurement and hoarding by the traders contributed to famine. These two great famines occurred during British rule in India.

Since land is a shrinking resource for agriculture, there is no option except to produce more food from less per capita land. The event known as green revolution has made it possible. Our rice output has perhaps tripled during the last forty years although farming land has decreased. But have we achieved the limit?

These days we hear of global food security problem in spite of green revolution .Though Lord Buddha said there is no other treasure equal to that of rice, we are not giving as much attention as we should give to food production. When man landed on the moon in the last century and we are looking forward to land on a world that will support life in not too distant future, should our descendants land there and say we have finished with resources of our earth and have come here in search of some food? It is a great shame that when we are making so much of achievements in so many fields, the world is suffering from food insecurity .Though rice is cultivated in 89 nations, rice exporting countries are only few like Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, India and US. A tenth of seven million tons of rice grown per year in the US is used for producing beer. But sometimes it may happen that as it did in 2007 no country is willing to export rice maybe because of shortage of production due to inclement weather. You may have money but no rice to buy. This is because of the erroneous policies Governments all over the world are pursuing. World's big spending goes on in prestigious projects like beautification, space exploration and armaments.

Pakistani Nobel Laureate Professor Abdus Salam said, “It is the height of hypocrisy to pretend that the manmade satellites orbiting in space and each costing at least as much as the entire yearly budget of Pakistan has been set up only to collect data on cosmic rays. This remark he made as the President of 13th All Pakistan Annual Science Conference held in Dhaka on 11 January, 1961 in an article entitled “Technology and Pakistan's Attack on Poverty”. Professor Salam or I myself am not against space exploration. It has brought lots of civilian benefits to mankind. But behind space exploration lies the philosophy of world domination. You see, all the wealthy countries, even the emerging ones, are sending a space vehicle to the moon. The dictum that one who controls space controls the world. still persists. President Regan of USA proposed the idea of star wars. I do not think that the idea has died down. It is not altogether impossible that the space which is full of vehicles becomes a theatre of war unless the minds of the world leaders change towards complete disarmament. The cold war has ended but the mental framework has not changed. There may be reduction of few nuclear armaments, but still there is enough nuclear arsenals to destroy the world many times over and the defence expenditure of every country goes on increasing every year. Here there is a breakdown of defence expenditure as percentage of GDP for some major countries: US-4.3 per dent, Russian Federation-3.5 per cent, UK-2.5 per cent, Sudan-4.4 per cent, Saudi Arabia-8.2 per cent, Japan-0.9 per cent, Germany-1.3 per cent. The world's annual expenditure on defence is1531 billion dollars.

We see from these data that defence spending of Germany and Japan are the lowest and currently they are great economic powers. And as regards food, they have plenty of it that they offer to guests like no other country. I had the privilege to visit Germany. We stayed in a guest house and the tables and chairs were so comfortable that one feels like reading day and night .As regards food, they gave us some tickets but never checked. You could eat many times over. There is hardly any difference between meals at different times. You can have a lunch at breakfast time. Similar is the case with food in Japan. So if you want to reduce food insecurity, you decrease your defence expenditure and spend that on food production. With the abolition of cold war, people should gradually move towards complete disarmament. The days of Genghis Khan have gone .It is not necessary for one country to occupy an inch of another country. The present status quo regarding the borders should stay. In the past, one country invaded another country mainly for food and other resources. But in this age of advanced technology, every country can be self-sufficient. Some country may have access to one item and can share it with others who have less .It is the human skill which has become asset these days. Look at the European countries which have fought wars all the time. But now they have realized that it is futile. They have become almost one country now helping each other at the time of need. So the EU should take a lead in educating the world about spending more on food and less on arsenals. If the countries divert 10 per cent of their expenditure on defence towards food security, I think there will be a lot of improvement in the global food security situation.

Now let us come to Bangladesh. I had the privilege of visiting IRRI, the International Rice Research Institute, Manila about 10 years ago. IRRI along with an Institute CYMMYT for wheat in Mexico spearheaded the green revolution. I asked them what is the limit of their productive capacity as regards rice. They said it is 12 metric ton per hectare. Meanwhile, they moved towards mega rice and China has developed hybrid varieties of rice of whose yield is higher.

Here I have some country-wise figures worldwide on the production of rice in metric tons per hectare. US-7.45, China-6, Japan-5.85, Vietnam-4.63, Indonesia 4.54, Bangladesh 3.43

This shows that among the countries considered here Bangladesh's yield is the lowest. In spite of the fact that fertilizers and irrigation are provided adequately, the production is not increasing. It seems Bangladeshi farmers are not getting correct seeds There are various newspaper reports that farmers are often cheated while procuring seeds and carry low quality seeds home. Seed is the driver of crop production. If the farmers get the right seed and other implements, I am sure their performance will be as good as anybody else

I know a top agricultural scientist in Bangladesh, who claimed that he has produced 9 tons of rice per hectare in Bangladesh. He is retired from Government Service, but works in an international organization. Recently, there was a report in a television channel that somebody has produced 7 tons per hectare. These sources can be tracked down, they can be regarded as role models and our Agriculture Department can take it up for implementation in the whole country. Thus our food production can be doubled. The task is a challenging one but this is what we work for. The Government should allocate all the necessary funds for this task as rice is our greatest treasure. The present government is very responsive in creative ventures as we have seen in the case of jute genome discovery by Mr. Maksudul Alam.


Photo: Amirul Rajiv

Now a few words on 'climate change' and agriculture. Agriculture is very much dependent on climate and any adverse climatic change will certainly affect agriculture as we always observe. Farmers have learnt a lot about how to respond to a climatic change. The climate of the world is always changing. Consider, for example, the climate change scenario advocated by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) caused by the greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Though the bulk of the gas is produced by advanced countries, yet the greatest impact of it has to be borne by poor countries Bangladesh, even if its contribution towards pollution is negligible. This is a matter of great concern for us. Land is required to cultivate rice but as per the IPCC prediction, Bangladesh loses its land to the tune of 20 per cent. So, our production will suffer in addition to our people being displaced. I have suggested in my book, “Protecting Bangladesh from Natural Disasters “that this can be offset by reclaiming land through massive afforestation and cross damming. This is also asserted by our Prime Minister and this should be undertaken without delay. Our coastal area will become saline and present varieties of rice will not grow anymore in this saline condition. Fortunately our agricultural scientists have developed saline resistant crops and this must be introduced soon. .Then there are crop killers like droughts, floods, cyclones and we must always be prepared to face these calamities. I understand that our Government is trying to get the maximum compensation from the developed countries for the losses we will sustain due to climate change. But the allocation of one sector should not be used by another sector. For example, the people who suffered losses by the cyclones Sidr and Aila do not seem to have been rehabilitated Was there no donor fund available from the donors or was there no fund to be allocated by our government? The existing coastal embankments were not designed to protect the people from the onslaught of storm surges, rather their function was protection against salinity intrusion due to normal tides. Over the years and due to cyclones like Sidr and Aila, they have been damaged totally. Hence they need to be constructed with higher heights I have an apprehension that the package that the polluting countries are pledging or the Government allotment to this effect will not reach those who need it most. Embankment should be built with concrete walls. Otherwise they will not last. If necessary, we should make necessary land reform to maximize production. , If a co-operative system proves to be of help in boosting production, we should do that. Recently, the Government is trying to strengthen the cooperative system .But the effort should not be allowed to fizzle out like in the past, An all out research should be conducted by bringing together all the concerned departments and experts to work out a food security system for the country without delay. We must remember that if there is no rice to eat, the whole civilization will collapse. We must investigate whether the flourishing Indus Valley civilization collapsed as a result of adverse climate change. Climate is of crucial importance in rice production. A change in the climate regime can cause to end a civilization. Hence we must undergo extensive climatic research in the country with emphasis on agro-climatology.

Last, but not the least, we should double our rice production. To that end we have the potential to meet all possible damage caused by climate change. Bangladesh is really shujola, shufala, shashashamola and also dhono dhanoy pushpo vora amader ei boshundhara...

The writer, a climatologist, is former head of SPARSO.