Bangladesh has been one of the fastest-growing economies in the world over the past decade. It is among the best performers on poverty and food insecurity reduction, which makes its growth-inclusive. This owes to its demographic dividend, foreign remittances and strong ready-made garment exports. Stability on macroeconomic indicators, such as consumption and incomes, provide a strong base for the economy.

Bangladesh is on track to improve its economy’s rank internationally. It will soon graduate from least developed to developing country status, under the United Nations designation. Bangladesh’s development agenda entails ensuring the food and nutrition security of its people.

This agenda is derived from the constitution, which clearly states, in Article 18(2), that, ‘the State shall regard raising the level of nutrition and public health as among its primary duties.’ Bangladesh’s current administration often reminds itself of this constitutional obligation. It will not be possible to achieve this commitment without addressing an array of social indicators, such as those on infant mortality, maternal mortality, illiteracy, life expectancy, safe water delivery and sanitation.

Bangladesh’s economy’s growth averaged between 6.5% and 8.15% in the most recent decade until the covid-19 pandemic erupted in March 2020. When this is added with the social indicators’ performance, it indicates towards an inclusive-growth outcome.

Over the past few decades, Bangladesh economy has also experienced a structural shift out of the agriculture sector towards the services and industrial sectors. Although the services sector now generates over half of Bangladesh’s gross domestic product (GDP), agriculture still contributes nearly 12% to GDP. More importantly, agriculture employs about 40% of the labour force and provides raw material to industries. This implies that, despite the structural transformation, agriculture remains an engine within the economy.

 

Agriculture’s alignment with the development agenda

Looking back, Bangladesh has historically been predominantly an agrarian country. Food-related problems used to be endemic in the country. A seasonal starvation phenomenon, known locally as monga, took over the northern zones. Monga is now a thing of the past. Bangladesh has made a strong headway on agricultural development, leading to long-term food security for its nearly 170 million people.

In 2015, the World Bank reclassified Bangladesh as a middle-income country, up from the low-income category. Inspired by the momentum, Bangladesh initiated its own plan to become a high-income advanced country by 2041. Among Bangladesh’s success stories is how it went from being a food-dependent country, increasing its agricultural production to attain food self-sufficiency. This transformation needed political will, which the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has provided.

This article identifies the factors behind food self-sufficiency and food security, as well as upcoming policy priorities.

The core strategy behind food self-sufficiency

At independence in 1971, Bangladesh was arguably the most hunger-prone in the world. Its founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, popularly known as Bangabandhu, believed that, to eradicate hunger, food self-sufficiency would be the best policy. Bangladesh’s current prime minister has adopted the same policy. The policy itself is simple but has managed to transform Bangladesh from a food-deficit to a food self-sufficient country. Self-sufficiency in the production of rice, the country’s staple food, has been a special milestone within the larger trend.

Within Bangladesh’s agriculture sector, major strides have been seen in terms of food self-sufficiency, reduced import dependency, supply stability and reduced price-volatility. These are the less-spoken-of pillars of food security in the past decades.

Bangladesh’s food grain production, which is now to the tune of over 46 million metric tonnes (MMT), has quadrupled since independence in 1971. The country has also increased production of crops such as wheat, maize and high-value fruits and vegetables. Non-crop agriculture, such as fish, meat, eggs and milk, has also been increasing.

 

Bangladesh is one of the ten largest food producers globally. It is among the top three producers of major food items – namely, rice, vegetables, freshwater fish, chicken and cattle. To achieve this, the government has taken an all-round approach. Its efforts have been geared towards domestic supply, enhanced employment and safety nets. The result has been reduced seasonal fluctuations in rice prices, and also a 2.5-fold increase in the rice equivalent of wage in 2018–2019 as compared with 20 years ago.

 

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s prime minister, wearing a conical hat, locally known as mathal, which is worn by paddy-farmers in the countryside, 10 January, 1973. Variations of this conical farmer’s hat is worn across the southeast Asian rice belt. Mujib was attending a folk performance program dedicated to farmers. | Photo by Bangabandhu Memorial Trust.

The policy journey

The agriculture sector in Bangladesh is often associated with the term ‘silent revolution.’ The seed of silent revolution was sowed during Bangladesh’s first administration, the Mujib administration, which covered the period 1972–1975. Mujib put in place an array of economy-wide policy and institutional reforms. Restructuring agriculture was probably his top priority, as the economy at the time was fully agriculture-based.

The Mujib administration’s all-at-once policy reforms, including input trade liberalisation and investments in agricultural research, triggered a green revolution. The result of this was the adoption of high-yielding crop varieties combined with improved irrigation infrastructure, efficient market institutions and mechanisation of the supply chain.

Unfortunately, Mujib was assassinated in 1975, before he served a full term in office. His agro-reform process halted. Post-Mujib, the Bangladeshi leadership deprioritised agriculture. The sector became synonymous with poverty and backwardness.

Table 1. Mujib’s epoch-making steps to a green revolution, 1972–1975

Inclusive development ●      Formed two sector-oriented models for development, one in agriculture, another in industry. The agriculture model was premised for the fast reduction of poverty and as a source of raw materials for industry.

●      Known as the Green Revolution, a slogan for community-level mobilisation was: The country survives when farmers survive (in Bengali Krishak bachle desh bachbe).

●      Appealed to well-educated people to enter the sector, involving a move to rural areas.

Reconstruction post-1971 war ●      Rehabilitated some 2.2 million peasant families.

●      Waived all loan credits and interests for farmers.

●      Introduced a programme to distribute cows and ploughing-bullocks.

●      Sanctioned agricultural loans worth USD 4 million, a prominent share of public spending at the time.

Research ●      Established two major institutions: the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council and the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute.

●      Prioritised agricultural research in higher education and research institutions.

●      Focused on short-time cultivation methods through modernised farming.

●      Focused on high-yielding rice varieties.

Reforms ●      Upgraded agriculture graduates’ status to qualify them for top civil service jobs. This was a landmark decision.

●      Waived tax for agricultural land of up to 9 acres.

●      Reset the land ownership ceiling to 35 acres per household.

●      Introduced a two-tier agro-cooperative system.

●      Introduced the first-ever microcredit programme through a new institution, the Bangladesh Rural Development Board.

●      Introduced a minimum sale price of major agricultural products like paddy, jute, tobacco and sugarcane.

●      Distributed newly found government-owned riverine lands, known as khas lands, to landless people.

Programmes ●      Expanded high-yielding rice varieties; agricultural inputs like machinery, seeds, fertilisers and pesticides available at highly subsidised cost.

●      In 1974, 43,000 subsidised pumps and tube-wells were sold.

●      Built a mass-scale irrigation project, the Ganges-Kapotakkha Irrigation Project, in the southwestern region in 1973.

Outcomes ●      Bangladesh’s first budget allocated the largest share for the agriculture sector, signalling the priority of the sector.

●      33% increase of irrigation coverage in 1975 as compared with 1969.

●      Chemical fertiliser usage boosted by 70%, pesticides by 40% and high-yielding seeds by 25%. All these inputs were relatively new in the country’s farming methods, which till then was still very traditional.

 

Bangladesh’s agriculture sector waited for similar sweeping reforms till 1996, 21 years after Mujib’s efforts. The progressive agenda of the new government in 1996 put agriculture at the forefront. Within a short period of four years, in 1999–2000, the country secured a surplus in foodgrain production for the first time.

As mentioned before, thanks to the cornerstone policy of food self-sufficiency, the agriculture sector at large has been of the highest priority for the consecutive tenures of the current political regime. Bangladesh has formulated targeted policies to guide its agriculture sector – namely, the National Agriculture Policies 1999 and 2018, the National Food Policy 2006 and a number of long-term plans.[1]

Bangladesh has now launched programmes to popularise the use of organic and balanced fertiliser. As part of the country’s social security strategy, the government has implemented innovative measures such as the distribution of subsidised food, food for work, food for education meal programming, the fair price card system, open market sales and test relief programmes for nearly as decade now.

Governance reform

Institutional strengthening has been a pillar of Bangladesh’s agriculture policy from the get go, albeit one whose importance is often not sufficiently recognised. Bangladesh’s first administration was aware of the weak nature of the country’s governance.

The Mujib administration of 1972–1975 revitalised agricultural research and introduced technology-based agriculture in the country. Mujib created an array of institutions: the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council, the Horticulture Development Board, the Seed Certification Agency, Bangladesh Agriculture Development Corporation and Bangladesh Tea Research Institute. During his tenure, he played an instrumental role in upgrading two other institutions: Bangladesh Agriculture Research Institute and Bangladesh Rice Research Institute. On the input supply side, Mujib started setting up publicly owned fertiliser industries.

Bangladesh’s current government has inherited Mujib’s input-enhancing policy. The number of dealers in input distribution has increased so that now inputs such as fertilisers, seeds and pesticides, as well as technical inputs, are easily accessible to farmers.

Bangladesh has reinvigorated its agricultural extension system through smart policies such as encouraging meritocratic agriculturists and information dissemination through Farmer Field Schools. The government’s designated agency for assisting farmers, the Department of Agriculture Extension, has seen the establishment of a new ‘mechanisation wing.’

Bangladesh has also introduced a reward system in the sector. Prestigious national-level awards, such as the Bangabandhu Krishi Award and Agricultural Important Person, act as tools to mainstream farming activities. Since 2015–2016, public funds for agricultural research institutes have increased significantly.

As part of promoting market access and symmetric market information, the Bangladeshi government has a Department of Agricultural Marketing, which is being expanded at the grassroots level. Bangladesh’s Ministry of Food, along with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, is formulating a county investment plan framework to stimulate the agriculture sector.

Research and development leading to acceleration

Rice is the staple food of Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s government’s agency dedicated to research on rice, Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, has developed 102 modern varieties of rice. These modified species have different tolerance capacities depending on the environmental conditions. The soil tolerance abilities of these rice species range between saline, submergence, drought, cold, tidal and semi-deep water. This is good news for Bangladesh, given that the country is suffering greatly from the impacts of climate change.

Bangladeshi researchers have developed rice for diabetic patients.

In addition, Bangladeshi researchers have developed rice for diabetic patients. Bangladesh Rice Research Institute’s species have covered more than 80% of the total rice-farmed lands of the country. These species collectively contribute 91% of Bangladesh’s rice production.

The country’s holistic agro-research centre, Bangladesh Agriculture Research Institute, has developed 602 varieties of crops in total.[2] Out of these, more than half were developed between 2009 and 2021.

The producer–consumer dichotomy

Maintaining the balance between producers’ and consumers’ interests in terms of agricultural products is a challenge for every country. The main challenge here is that high output prices encourage farmers while putting pressure on consumers. In today’s era of trade liberalisation, governments intervene in the market through policy tools. They do so when they sense falling prices during the harvest season and are faced with rising prices in the off-season. Bangladesh adopts the same strategy, behaving strategically so as not to disturb market equilibrium.

According to the market situation, Bangladesh’s government procures paddy and rice from farmers and millers, respectively. It does so by using an administered price in order to stop the market price from falling. The procurement also helps build foodgrain stock for public distribution. In the case of rising prices, the government uses innovative interventions such as open market sale, the fair price card and food-friendly programmes. These measures are designed to protect the poor and vulnerable, and essentially complement the social safety net programme.

For crops other than rice, the government adopts an array of policy options: staggering crop production, introducing off-season varieties for selected crops, using the provisions of the newly devised Agricultural Marketing Act – and adopting trade policy instruments. To contain the production cost, Bangladesh has also started incentivising mechanisation of agricultural inputs. Around 50–70% of the cost of equipment is being incentivised under a new programme.

Considering the new challenges, Bangladesh is exploring innovations to ensure the right mode of procurement to support farmers. Public initiatives are constructing silos for rice. More importantly, the government has been pursuing a policy prescription of value chain development, reducing post-harvest losses and commercialising agriculture. These policies aim to increase farmers’ income and generate youth employment.

Market regulation tool

In Bangladesh, policy discourses often advocate for setting up an Agricultural Price Commission to regulate market prices. This recommendation needs to be seen through the lens of the country’s overall economic policy framework. What will such a mechanism do? The truth is, controlling prices is neither feasible nor possible. In other words, a government cannot do it.

A more appropriate strategy could involve a mechanism of price support and close market monitoring. Bangladesh’s existing institutions – namely, the Ministry of Food, the Ministry of Commerce and the Department of Agricultural Marketing – are already on the task. Measures such as facilitating access to the market and last-mile delivery of symmetric information are key to addressing the interests of Bangladeshi farmers and consumers alike.

Market linkages, home and abroad 

The incomes of Bangladeshi consumers have risen sharply in the past decade or so. So has consumers’ demand for safe, quality and diverse food. The ‘practice’ trifecta of adopting good agricultural practices, good hygienic practices and good manufacturing practices is instrumental to food safety throughout the food system.

Linking local farms to the international market requires conformity of standards and protocols designed for food safety. To this end, it is important to improve sanitary and phytosanitary measures. This requires regulating pesticide residue, metals in crops/livestock, ripening hormones, injurious preservatives, harmful additives in processed foods and antibiotics in livestock products.

Exporting means maintaining international standards in post-harvest processing such as in packaging, labelling and certification of products. These are all challenges for Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s government is aware of these terms of export, and promoting the export of agricultural products is a policy priority.

Along these lines, a number of initiatives are ongoing: strengthening the Department of Marketing; strengthening sanitary and phytosanitary measures through a specialised Plant Quarantine Department; establishment of new accredited labs; formulation of a supporting policy; and the Good Agricultural Practice Policy in 2020 along with its Implementation Plan. The technical modules of this latter include traceability.

All these measures inculcate best practices with regard to farming, harvesting, packaging, heat treatment, handling, storing, transportation and shipping. Bangladesh’s Ministry of Agriculture has taken the lead to sensitise farmers, entrepreneurs, processors and trade bodies to reorient their modus operandi into export-related activities for agricultural products.

Unaddressed issues

The basis of agricultural production is seed. Good seed is vital for good crops. Bangladesh has formulated a liberalised seed policy that entails stringent management of the quality of seed. The country has a dedicated Seed Board to oversee seed regulation. The Ministry of Agriculture also has a specialised Seed Wing. The oversight framework for seeds also has several other institutions.

Policy advocates often push the Bangladesh government to adopt agricultural insurance. For Bangladesh, adopting insurance for seeds, or for crops, is a non-issue. There are several reasons for this.

  • Absence of evidence of country-wide success in any other developing country;
  • Pilots in Bangladesh that have not shown sustained success;
  • Advent of moral hazards;
  • Absence of reinsurance mechanism in view of covariant risks in agriculture;
  • Lack of appropriate or effective modalities in the service delivery system.

In Bangladesh, agriculture has been transformed slowly from subsistence mode in the past to semi-commercial level at the current stage. Agricultural exports from Bangladesh – a proxy for commercialisation – have increased in recent years. The government will expand opportunities for value addition and quality agro-processing to boost exports. Strengthening the capacity of labs, developing skills and enhancing export incentives are at the top of the government’s agenda.

Spurring precision agriculture

Bangladesh’s government believes that technology could be the solution to reduce production costs, enhance competitiveness and preserve environmental integrity. Technology is the key to optimise input use. Digital and precision agriculture is a policy prioritySeveral initiatives are ongoing. A new mechanisation policy has been approved, and its implementation is underway. In light of this, a pilot project for promoting mechanisation is now being implemented.

Digital and precision agriculture is a policy priority for Bangladesh.

In terms of technological revolution, Bangladesh is no stranger to the new waves of Industry 4.0. By 2071, the year when the country turns 100, Bangladesh can’t afford to be on the side-lines of that cutting-edge tech era. Bangladesh’s across-the-board tech integration plan, the Digital Bangladesh programme initiated in 2009 – along with its Information and Communications Technology Policy, its e-Agriculture Plan for 2025 (popularly known as eKrishi Vision 2025) and its e-Government Master Plan 2019 – have major components for a tech-driven agriculture sector.

In Bangladesh, formulation of a Fourth Industrial Revolution action plan is underway. This is being devised to integrate professionals on emerging technologies – such as Internet of Things, blockchain, artificial intelligence, big data analytics, robotics and drones and nano technology – into farming practices.

Bangladesh is also promoting climate-smart agriculture, considering its ‘triple win’ benefits: increased productivity, enhanced resilience and reduced emissions.[3] Micro measures will assist in gaining efficiency for each calorie or kilo of food produced, avoiding deforestation from agriculture and identifying how to absorb carbon out of the atmosphere.

Policy on credit

In Bangladesh, Krishi Bank (‘bank for farmers’), a state-owned bank for the agriculture sector, along with other formal public financial institutions, fulfils around a quarter of agricultural credit demand. Informal sources supply 8% of agricultural credit. Microfinance institutions also serve as a key source.

Credit makes a significant contribution towards micro-level, meaning household, crop production across Bangladesh. A household without credit fares more poorly than its credited counterparts in terms of crop production. The central bank and the government have taken a number of measures to help farmers bridge the credit access gap. Government policy entails expanding institutional credit.

A few smart access to finance initiatives are in place. These introduce bank accounts based on nominal deposit starting from USD 0.10; half-subsidised credit in the covid-19 period; a just 4% interest rate for high-value crops; provisions to accept machines as collateral; and designing awareness-raising programmes on credit schemes. In this area, an important policy priority would be to improve the efficiency of public institutions offering credit.

With the support of Bangladesh’s signature governance innovation agency, the a2i, an app has been created to automate the entire process of loan disbursement. This app will surely reduce the amount of red-tapes that a Bangladeshi farmer faces while pursuing a loan. This service is currently being piloted in the southern port city of Chattagram and will soon be national.[4]

The diversification agenda

Both crop and diet diversification are important for a country like Bangladesh. They are required on two counts: to reduce micronutrient malnutrition and to offset the pressure on rice, the staple food. The key is to set aside some land for cultivation of other crops. Bangladesh’s policies and many of its government’s programmes are geared towards crop and diet diversification.

Diversification is already happening, albeit slowly. A steady reduction of the share of rice’s value in agricultural GDP is a good indicator of diversification of both production and consumption of food. Tracking the country’s periodical household surveys shows the diversification of the food consumption of Bangladesh.[5] In Bangladesh’s case, doubling rice productivity will foster diversification of food. It will essentially spare lands for cultivation of other crops, as well as non-crop activities.

 

 

Impacts of covid-19 on food security

The covid-19 pandemic broke out in Bangladesh in March of 2020. Covid-19 has set Bangladesh back, as has happened elsewhere in the world. At the beginning of the pandemic, movement restrictions had negative impacts on the food supply chain. The government was quick to act. Farm mechanisation was expanded to address labour shortages during cultivation and harvest.

Covid-19 outbreak slashed incomes, and urban–rural reverse migration became widespread. Rising unemployment, mainly in the informal sector, hit low-income households the hardest. Bangladesh government’s priority was to reduce the intensity of risks to people and the economy. It took huge rehabilitation and social security measures to offset these risks across the four broad sectors of agriculture, industry, trade and services.

A total of USD 14.3 billion, or 4.34% of GDP, has been allocated to offset the impacts of covid-19. The lion’s share has been strategically channelled into the agriculture sector. This support has included:

  • Distribution of food to vulnerable people;
  • USD 588 million as a stimulus package for farmers;
  • An increase in the agricultural subsidy by USD 1.2 billion;
  • A direct cash transfer to 5 million families, a big portion of which were farming households;
  • Free food support to the amount of 0.6 million metric tonnes to those who lost employment;
  • Low-interest working capital support to small and medium enterprises amounting to USD 2.4 billion;
  • An increased export development fund of USD 1.5 billion;
  • Refinancing schemes targeting low-income groups and farmers.


Game-changers for agriculture

Food and nutrition security has been of utmost interest to the Bangladesh government. This is reflected in the fact that a major chunk of budgetary allocations is channelled towards food and nutrition security. Bangladesh’s agricultural development transformation has been exemplary for other developing countries.

Bangladeshi agriculture faces myriad policy dilemmas. These relate to self-sufficiency versus self-reliance, diversification versus comparative advantage and producers’ versus consumers’ interest. Implementation of new policies is expected to solve these issues.

In Bangladesh, recent surges in rice prices have led to questions regarding food self-sufficiency. Hikes in imports, up to 10% of the total supply, point to the same concern. These concerns call for holistic food gap analysis, of both production and consumption estimates.[6] Two points to note here: there are no supply shortfalls in the market, and wheat constitutes the major portion of the imports.

Bangladesh is pursuing three potential game-changers to address these blind spots in the agriculture market: 1) strengthening market linkages and export linkages to enhance farmers’ income and youth employment; 2) forming farmers’ institutions such as producer organisations, common interest groups and water user associations to overcome the constraints of land fragmentation; and 3) focusing on high-value non-traditional crops along with the vertical expansion of rice. These game-changers need increased investment. To this end, the Bangladesh government is committed to forging partnerships.

 

 

 

[1] Such as the Seventh and Eighth Five Year Plans and the Sustainable Development Goal implementation strategies.

[2] Of all the new crop varieties in Bangladesh, there are 33 mega varieties, including fruits (7), vegetables (12), pulses (9), tuber crops (4) and oilseeds (1).

[3] In Bangladesh, international partners, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank are supporting the government in climate-smart agriculture initiatives.

[4] Details about the project can be found at online krishi.gov.bd

[5] Bangladesh conducts its complex Household Income and Expenditure Surveys (HIES) twice in a decade.

[6] In addition to loss estimates – seed, feed, wastage and other usage of rice.

 

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

M.A. Razzaque is the Agriculture Minister of Bangladesh. He is an agriculturist and a politician. He is also a Member of Parliament of Bangladesh. He specialises in farming system development and sustainable rural agriculture. He was Chief Scientific Officer of the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation. He pursued his doctoral studies at Purdue University, US.