Farmers feed people

Farida Akhter | Published: 00:00, Mar 26,2021


THE report on the State of Food and Agriculture: Innovation in Family Farming (2014) by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that 500 million small family farms, owning less than a hectare of land, are the source of more than 80 per cent of the world’s food supply. In Bangladesh small farm holdings (less than 3 acres) constitute 84 per cent of total farming households; medium farms 14 per cent and large farms (over 7.50 acres) are only 9 per cent, keeping to a 2015 Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics report. Reliable vital statistics are notoriously lacking in Bangladesh making a reasonable assessment of the state of agriculture difficult. There are limitations of assessing the state of agriculture by farm size, which hardly reflects the agrarian transformation Bangladesh went through since its independence, particularly during neo-liberal globalisation. In this article we will limit to some key observations on what is happening to farming communities 50 years after the independence. 

Independence means to be free from ideologies that can enslave us to external powers and masters, the forces we generally remain unaware of. Our idea of farming is contrary to the challenge we face in the present corporate world and uncritical globalisation. Chashi or Krishok, as they are called, have been in the fore front of the liberation war in 1971. They were the freedom fighters — mukti joddhas, who fought directly with the Pakistani occupation army raiding the villages, they gave shelters to many young muktijoddhas coming from the cities; women in the farming households cooked food for the muktijoddhas and passed on information from one camp to the other. They sent their sons to the war field to save the country. These are farmers who never cared for a muktijoddha certificate to be recognised nationally on the Independence Day or on the Victory Day. These are popular narratives of liberation and they are true. But liberation is not merely liberating the land. What about seed, about the diversity of our rich environment and ecology and landscapes? What about the agrarian knowledge developed in a delta composed of three mighty rivers? What is important for us is to understand the much deeper narrative by which a nation realises the first principle of existence. To exist biologically as a nation, one must have the sovereign capacity to regenerate their members biologically as a living being. It is done by farming communities. So defending the farmers, their memories, knowledge and art, is the key to the existence of a nation. Corporation or agribusiness do not feed us, they are here to make profit for themselves. It is the farming communities that ensure our biological existence. 

The bias to agri-business, particularly to corporate interest is obvious in statements of development experts and economists. They claim that massive transformation in the agriculture sector, microfinance, robust remittance inflows and the emergence of an autonomous entrepreneurial class have contributed to Bangladesh’s economic growth over the past 50 years. In a dialogue organised by The Power and Participation Research Centre Dr MA Sattar Mandal, former vice-chancellor of the Bangladesh Agricultural University said, ‘the structural changes taking place in the Bangladesh economy is largely contributed by the agricultural sector and rural economy. The transformation has been witnessed in high-valued crops, fisheries and livestock that contributed hugely to the reduction of poverty as well as improved nutritional standard with food security and sufficiency. At the end of 1980, we saw a large-scale privatisation of agriculture’. It means structural dis-articulation and violence against the small farmers literally destroying the rural households in order to release cheap labour for export-oriented industry and supply to the global industrial reserve army. Other discussions look at the prospects and challenges of agri-business to be inclusive and give support to the private entrepreneurs where farmers become contract farmers. It means small farming households are mere appendage to corporate profiteering in seed, crops and food. So the role small household farming plays in the broader context of environment, ecology, water management and their present struggle for survival in a global climatic disaster are absent in the minds of the experts. These experts are simply looking for the options of agri-business and not how to ensure seed and food sovereignty of a nation. They also miss the key issue: farmers feed us, not corporations. Moreover, market as a means of social distribution and exchange of food and means of farming is very different concept than turning agriculture as merely a sector of investment and profit for big companies. This mind-set is destructive for Bangladesh agriculture. 

After the independence, agriculture was, as studies show, considered as of paramount importance in the economy where 90 per cent of the population depended directly or indirectly on it for the living and contributed 60 per cent to the GDP providing food, fibre and foreign exchange. But contribution of agriculture has been gradually declining. During 1983–84, the contribution of agriculture was 49 per cent of the GDP compared to only 10 per cent for industrial sector, and 18 per cent for trade and transport. The gradual reduction in the contribution of the agriculture sector to the GDP has been visible since 1990, with 38 per cent contribution to the national GDP. At present it contributes only 14.23 per cent to the country’s GDP and employs 41 per cent of the labour force. The decline of agriculture’s share in GDP is seen as ‘modernisation. The idea of ‘modernisation’ is based on the notion that agriculture means low growth and backwardness, while development of a country means destruction of farming and turning lands into means of industrial food production. Consequently, in such modernised scenario, a country doesn’t need farmers; they are turned into surplus population to be sold cheaply in the labour market.

After liberation, Bangladesh inherited modern agriculture or the Green Revolution of Ayub Khan of Pakistan. The middle class, who formed the government, did not see anything wrong in continuing with the agricultural policies followed by the Pakistan government. The prescription was coming from the multilateral organisations like the World Bank and the private foundations like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundation.

During the mid-1960s, Green Revolution was introduced with high-yielding variety seeds (HYV seeds) in food production and commercialisation of agriculture. The HYV seeds were the IRRI-Rice and the Mexican wheat produced in the agricultural research institutes. Use of chemical fertilisers was unknown to the farmers, but they were given at a subsidised 50 per cent of price, the plant protection (pesticides) were given free, seeds were sold at Rs 2 per maund and agricultural implements were given at a subsidy of 25 per cent. The fertiliser use in 1971–72 was 138.4 tonnes, and in 1972–73 was 248 tonnes, as Dr A Alim shows in his An introduction to Bangladesh Agriculture. About 50 years later the fertiliser use during 2018–19, particularly sale of Urea is 26 lakh tonnes, TSP 1 lakh tonnes along with other fertilisers such as DAP, Gypsum etc. Pesticide use in 2018–19 is 37,187 metric tonnes, showing a massive dependence on chemical inputs.

— ubinig


Rice is the major crop for farmers of Bangladesh; the people are known as Bheto bangalee — the rice eating people. According to the Bangladesh Rice Knowledge Bank of BRRI, almost all of the 13 million farm families grow rice on about 10.5 million hectares. About 75 per cent of the total cropped area and over 80 per cent of the total irrigated area is planted with rice. In 1971, total rice production was about 10.59 million tonnes feeding a population of 70.88 million. The production of rice was about 38.70 million metric tonnes in this financial year 2020–21 for a population of over 160 million. This increased rice production has been associated with losing of traditional rice varieties, imposition of modern rice varieties on around 66 per cent of the rice land, which means use of fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation water, mechanisation etc. This increase also means inclusion of the agri-business in seeds, fertiliser, and pesticides. There are more private business enterprises in rice seed development than the government institutions. Bangladesh Rice Research Institute has developed 56 HYV aman varieties such as BRRI 11, 22, 54, 94, 95 and seven hybrid rice varieties. Most hybrid rice are for the boro season, with only 10 hybrid ‘brands’ of aman rice, are offered by national and multinational private seed sellers. The international pesticide companies have started their business in Bangladesh. These are Syngenta, ACI, Bayer etc.

Rice is also one of the most attractive crops for many multinational corporations because it has a huge global market. Rice is the staple food of more than half of the world’s population — more than 3.5 billion people depend on rice for more than 20 per cent of their daily calories. Among the three major staple crops — rice, wheat and maize — rice accounts for 78 per cent of human consumption, compared to 64 per cent for wheat and 14 per cent for maize. 

The crop pattern also changed since the independence. After rice, in the year 1971–72 jute was the most important cash crop for the farmers; they lovingly called it the sonali ansh  (golden fibre). It was produced in 9.1 lakh hectares of land in 1971–72, but in 2014–15 it was reduced to 6.7 lakh hectares of land. On the other hand, during the 43 years from 1971–72 to 2014-15, potato cultivation increased from 1.30 lakh to 4.71 lakh hectares of land. These are mostly HYV varieties imported from abroad.

Pulse production by acreage has been declining as well. The major pulse crops are grown in the Rabi season. In 2016–17 pulse crops were grown in 9.2 lakh acres of land compared to 10 lakh acres in 2014–15. The decline is attributed to increased amount of land being devoted to irrigation-based boro rice crop and due to increased tobacco cultivation in the pulse growing areas such as Kushtia. Pulses known as the protein of the poor — about 24 per cent of the people, excluding the rising number of new poor amidst the COVID-19 emergency, live below the poverty line — who cannot afford to have meat and fish protein, depend on pulses. Farmers produce 1.75 lakh tonnes of lentils annually and the country’s yearly requirement is around 6–7 lakh tonnes. The low-income consumers pay a high price for the imported lentils which they need for their daily food to meet their nutritional requirements.

It is a good sign that mustard (sarisha) cultivation is on the rise in recent years and about 0.24 million hectares of land are put to mustard cultivation, with yield of mustard oil in the order of 0.19 million metric tonnes per year. Mustard is mostly used as cooking oil, which competes with imported soyabean, sunflower and canola oil. They are mostly genetically modified crops and associated with serious health risks. The soyabean lobby created much scare against mustard oil, thereby, leading to decreased demand of mustard oil and increased import of soybean oil. These factors have further contributed to the reducing mustard acreage in the country.

Since the 1970s tobacco cultivation has been allowed by the government in the food growing districts with fertile land. British American Tobacco Company and other national tobacco companies have taken up land during the winter crop season that overlaps the planting season of aus rice and the harvesting season of aman rice as well as planting of pulses, oil seeds, vegetables; thereby causing food deficit in those areas. The tobacco lobby having strong influence over the policy makers managed to have tobacco listed among six important cash crops along with rice, sugarcane, jute, tea and potato. Tobacco produces nicotine causing harm to the farmers in cultivation, deforestation and environmental hazards and adverse health impacts to the users of the tobacco products. Yet this is officially recognised as a ‘crop’ by the ministry of agriculture. This has been resisted by the tobacco control groups and goes against the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control of the WHO. Tobacco cultivation also contributes to the decline in food deficit and to the decline in major winter crops such as lentils, mustard etc.

The corporate control over agriculture and over the farmers has been visible through the use of so-called modern seed varieties including HYV and hybrid seeds. In rice cultivation, 78 per cent of the land is occupied by the HYV varieties which also require use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides; while only 12.5 per cent local/traditional varieties, which do not require any use of chemicals, are cultivated by the farmers. This means the more high technological varieties are used, the more we are entering into the agri-business model of industrial food production. This will have serious environmental and ecological consequences as well as be a major cause of biodiversity erosion. Corporate control of food chain will eventually eliminate small farming households. At present the very little space left for farming communities are shrinking rapidly.

Since mid-1990s the biotech companies have started field testing of the genetically modified food crops in Bangladesh. Syngenta came with golden rice as a so-called ‘solution’ to the worsening hunger and malnutrition, particularly of Vitamin A deficiency that leads to night blindness. In Bangladesh, golden rice has been developed with a BRRI rice variety BR 29 and has been tested several times without success in proving its efficacy in providing enough beta carotene. It is now waiting for approval for commercial cultivation by the Biosafety Core Committee under the environment ministry since November, 2019. There is no shortage of Vitamin A rich food in Bangladesh. Golden rice is just a corporate control over rice.

Another genetically modified food crop Bt brinjal, developed by Monsanto (now Bayer), has already been approved for field cultivation and has been given out to the farmers free of cost and with technical support. But this GM crop has failed to show success in its performance. Yet the Department of Agriculture keeps on pushing it to the small scale farmers. Several other GM crops such as late blight potato and GM papaya are being tested that will only turn the farmers into contract farmers working for the agri-business corporations.   

The good news is that, over the years, the negative impacts of the green revolution have unfolded and the difference between agriculture and industrial food production has become sharper. Since 1992, the environmental impact and loss of biodiversity became a global concern. Cultivation of the modern seed varieties replaced the traditional varieties and has led to tremendous loss of diversity. Though Bangladesh has thousands of rice varieties, only 100 modern varieties, which are mostly chemical input dependent, are promoted and have occupied the cultivable land. So, biodiversity-based farming practices are gaining popularity both among the farmers and the consumers. Farmers find it useful as they do not have to depend on cash investment for fertilisers and pesticides and for consumers it is the source of safe food. Most importantly, biodiversity-based farming systems are resilient and more efficient. As the practice strengthens the small farming households, by transforming them into living ecological unit within the eco-systemic landscape of a village, and biodiverse farm systems have tremendous potentiality to strengthen the economic foundation of Bangladesh, making it sovereign in seed and food production.  

The shift from high-input chemical-intensive agriculture to low-input ecological farming is growing as a resistance against corporate control of Bangladesh agriculture. It is also acknowledged that in order to achieve the SDG 1 of zero hunger, SDG 3 of good health and well-being, SDG 5 of gender equality and SDG 12 of responsible consumption, biodiversity-based farming practices, agro-ecology and food sovereignty must be supported. In Bangladesh, efforts of Nayakrishi Andolon and many other groups practising agro-ecology are increasing. Use of local variety seeds and the preservation of biodiversity are paramount to the political, geographical and biological existence of Bangladesh.

A strong domestic and national market for the products of farming communities is essential for the growth of Bangladesh. To achieve that goal, policy to promote corporate control and monopoly of few transnational companies must be stopped immediately. The so-called ‘agri-business’ is the term used to enslave the rich biodiverse landscape and agrarian culture of Bangladesh to transnational corporations.

We must remember that farmers feed the people, not the corporations.


Farida Akhter is the executive director of UBINIG and organiser of Nayakrishi Andolon.

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