Agriculture — The Saviour
Dr. Atiur Rahman
The world is now in the middle of the perfect storm of economic crisis with no sign of abating. The war in Ukraine in the wake of massive disruptions in supply chains of food and energy due to the unprecedented global pandemic has only intensified the speed of intensification of that storm. The global recession is already on. The recently concluded Annual General Meeting of the World Bank and IMF has aptly articulated the dangers of persistently high inflation amidst the fast slowing down of global growth and the looming food crisis leading to substantial food insecurity and the spectre of famine in many countries. The World Bank Chief has rightly appealed to global policymakers to be more humane in responding to this food crisis. The Bank has allocated thirty billion US dollars from the newly created 170 billion US dollar emergency fund to respond to this growing concern. In addition, new threats of geo-political tensions in the South China Sea and increasing existential threats related to climate change are making the operating environment of the global economy even more complex. Given this uncertain perspective of choppy waters all around to navigate, Bangladesh Premier has been calling the shots on target by urging the global community to ‘stop the war, stop politics with food.’ Besides many such farsighted utterings both at home and abroad, she made this passionate call on October 17, 2022, at the inaugural session of the FAO World Food Forum of this year at FAO’s headquarters in Rome while presenting her keynote address virtually. She urged the international community to do more to reach food to all as more than 800 million people still go to bed without a meal. The food insecurity has further worsened due to the Russia-Ukraine war, she said. She also urged them to stop the wastage of food. Instead, she appealed, “Please ensure food supply to areas of food shortage and famine. As human beings, we must believe everyone has the right to survive with food and have a decent life.” Like her father, she too reminded the global community to divert a part of the money invested in manufacturing weapons to spend on food production and distribution to avoid hunger for transforming the agri-food system for good of the many. Despite remarkable progress in science and technology, she was pained to see widespread food deprivation in a world with abundant resources. To her, the existing scarcity of food was man-made. In her words, “politics and business interests with food, challenges of climate change, and pest and disease attacks are all putting pressure on our agri-food systems.” Simultaneously, she invited foreign direct investors to invest in Bangladesh’s agricultural sector, particularly in agricultural-processing industries taking advantage of its welcoming liberal and incentivized investment environment.
The Bangladesh Premier then gave a short history of the focused attention that the agricultural sector got from the policymakers led by Bangabandhu right from the early days of our development journey. Despite aberrations in the post-1975 policy regimes, the country made a heroic comeback in 1996 with Premier Sheikh Hasina forming the government focusing on desired policy planning, prioritizing self-sufficiency in food by investing heavily in agriculture. Bangladesh’s agriculture has made significant progress during her tenure as the Premier. Food production has more than quadrupled in the last fifty years, surpassing forty million metric tons. Back in 2008, this was 28.9 million metric tons. In addition, Bangladesh made stunning progress in non-cereal food, vegetable, eggs, meat, chicken, and fish production. Today, Bangladesh is ranked second in jute and freshwater fish production, fourth in tea production, and first in Hilsha production. Indeed, under her able leadership, Bangladesh has been able to transform itself into a food-sufficient country from its earlier status of food deficit. To give you some concrete examples, the per capita rice production was 140 kg in 1973 which increased to 240 kg in 2018. This must have crossed 250 kg by now. Similarly, fish production per capita increased from 11kg to 25 kg, meat from 3kg to 44 kg, the egg from 15 pieces to 101 pieces, and milk from 6 kg to 58 kg during this period. The figures are much more robust now. All this has been made possible through committed home-grown solutions embracing enabling public policies and complemented by the innovative private sector. Besides supportive power supplies and favourable infrastructures, the hard work of the field-level agricultural officials, and the contribution of the agricultural scientists with abundant Research and Development support made this transformation possible. The enabling policy environment has been facilitated by investment (subsidies and extension support) for massive mechanization, modernization of agricultural education, integration of education with the field, innovations, and research, continued growth in agricultural credit through bank accounts and digital agricultural services complemented by door-to-door extension services by the field level officials. The central bank in Bangladesh has been playing a significant developmental role by adopting a well crafted agricultural and rural credit policy paving the way for infusion of nearly three billion USD as agricultural credit to both farm and non-farm sectors. Twenty million farmers have been receiving agricultural input cards with Ten-Taka bank accounts over a decade or so. The loans and subsidies are sent to these accounts directly minimizing the scope of leakages.
Recently, I had an opportunity of interacting with the grass-roots level agricultural officials and modern farmers at the Krishibid Institute where both the Minister and Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture were present. I was indeed highly impressed by the level of commitment by the field level officials for taking the appropriate messages to the farmers for modernization of the farm sector. I also met a few of the successful farmers in that convention. The women officials and farmers were extremely focused on their roles in improving the agricultural production by adopting modern varieties the seeds of which were delivered by BADC and farmers’ groups facilitated by the extension officials. This also included how to expand cultivation of mustard seeds cultivating improved varieties. This called for more research and extension activities.
One of the farmers who have been awarded many times by the government for her exemplary achievements in pushing frontiers of agricultural production was so confident that she said in loud voice that the spectre of famine will never haunt Bangladesh as there has been so much done by the government and private sector to increase food production. She also echoed the Prime Minister that not an inch of land will be left unutilized this year to cope with the challenge of food insecurity created by the pandemic and the war. The government will have to just focus on good quality seeds and better distribution of fertilizer and credit to take the campaign of enhanced food production forward, the farmers said. The extension officials also supported them.
However, that does not mean that there are no challenges in the field of agriculture. As the Premier identified, there are serious challenges of climate change and natural calamities. The floods in Sylhet and sea-water surges in the coastal belt have certainly affected rice production. The higher level of food insecurity in Sylhet and Barisal divisions, as indicated by the recently conducted survey by the World Food Program, confirms this apprehension. The level of poverty must have been much higher in these affected regions. The recovery from the pandemic has also been slower in these areas, with the substantial prevalence of unemployment, lack of purchasing power, and enhanced level of malnutrition. So, these areas need to be prioritized in providing more subsidized agricultural inputs and a higher proportion of social protection. The Aman production has been salvaged by the last-minute monsoon rainfall, which will help sustain moisture in the field for better Boro production. The policymakers and the field officials will have to remain alert in terms of providing all the inputs in time at a reasonable cost as desired by the farmers to complete the cycle of Boro production and harvesting with adequate monitoring of the field actions. So far, my knowledge goes, Aman harvest will be more than what we expected and other winter crops will also follow in lines if we can provide the necessary support to the farmers. If we can coordinate well, we will be able to avoid the spectre of famine in Bangladesh, contrary to what is being anticipated by some of the onlookers of the food landscape. Certainly, the war in Europe has been affecting the grain supplies to the world. We, therefore, need to procure rice both from within and import from abroad to build up the food stock to nearly three million metric tons, to say the least. Apparently, the government is aware of this tricky situation and do its best to keep Bangladesh food self-sufficient at any cost.
Beyond these short-term measures we may now look for some medium and long-term policy measures to bolster our indigenous defence mechanism against the raging global economic crisis stoking high inflation and slower growth to augment higher levels of food supplies. The proposed measures fit in very well with the expectations of Agriculture Minister of Bangladesh Dr. M.A. Razzaque that he echoed in a recent write-up in ‘White Board’ (September 2021). In his words, “Bangladesh is pursuing three potential game-changers—1) strengthening market linkages and export linkages to enhance farmers’ income and youth employment;2) forming farmer’s institutions such as producer organizations, 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, Bangladesh Government is committed to forging partnerships.” Partnerships we must develop. This could be with other ministries and as well as the private sector (both for-profit and non-profit).
Against the backdrop, let’s now identify how to take agriculture further forward to make it the strongest driver of inclusive growth and the vanguard for facing the tide of the global recession.
1) Continue to invest more in agriculture as it acts as an import-substituting sector that helps cost less of the foreign exchange, which would have been needed if we were to import many food items, including rice.
2) Further strengthening price support and close market monitoring for providing farmers the appropriate value for their hard-earned agricultural produces.
3) Facilitating farmers to have access to the market and last-mile delivery of symmetric information.
4) Linking local farms to the international market requires conformity with standards and protocols. So, we will have to focus more on improving the standards of agricultural products for both regional and global exports.
5) Mechanization has gained significant momentum. To further pace it up we need to learn more from the experience of public-private partnerships and then scale up.
6) Add investment support for solar irrigation pumps to ease the pressure on import of conventional fuels that are costly and adverse to the climate.
7) Some examples of success in helping the farmers with marketing are there. E-commerce-based platforms can be further leveraged for this. The digital backbone has already reached the villages. It is high time that we exploit this digital infrastructure to have better access to urban markets.
8) Educated youth are now more interested in agriculture. Enabling environment needed to ensure their growth as agri-entrepreneurs. They need investment support from the central bank to access start-up capital and credit guarantee scheme. These budding entrepreneurs can be encouraged to go for green agriculture, technologically improved aquaculture, and livestock farming.
9) He small entrepreneurs may be supported for getting involved in agricultural processing industries for both domestic and export markets.
10) Also, a lot could be improved in the agricultural research field. Private sector must also come forward for further research and development as they know better the pulse of the market.
11) The food security and modern food storage should get appropriate policy priority to live up to the expectations of both domestic and international consumers.
12) Continue expanding food support by enhancing the number of family cards to respond to the growing demand for food rationing in the context of increased loss of income of many as inflation is still riding high.
13) Provide similar low-cost food support to the garments and other export-earning workers where the owners of the factories can also join hands by sharing the cost. Each factory can organize this distribution of food packages fortnightly for their workers. The payments can be made through mobile financial services.
I have mentioned here only a few ways to cope with the ongoing global economic crisis exacerbated by rising food inflation. Let’s have faith in our indigenous strategies of self-reliant development focusing on agriculture, the saviour from the raging recession. We can certainly draw our strength from our own resources, which used to be highlighted by our Father of the Nation while coping with the economic crisis.
He used to say: “Bangladesh will certainly overcome the challenges of today. We have human resources, land, jute, natural gas, tea, forests, fish, and livestock. If we can develop these resources, we will surely be able to overcome today’s challenges.” (Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, 26 March 1975 (Speech at Suhrawardy Uddyan)).
The writer is an eminent economist and former Governor of Bangladesh Bank.