Ways to grow more organic food in Bangladesh

Ways to grow more organic food in Bangladesh

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Rasha Binte Mohiuddin

In recent years modern system of chemical agriculture has attracted criticism on the ground that it is no longer ecologically sustainable nor economically viable, and that it may prejudice the health and well-being of both humans and animals. Plants in an organic system are cultivated without artificial pesticides and readily available fertilizers. Natural animal manure, compost and green manures are widely used. Rotation of crops makes plants rich in nutrients. This leads to natural balance in farm–environment. Organic farming has created a new market for organic products, because modern consumers are looking for safe foods. The knowledge about healthy nutrition habits among consumers is growing. Research shows that organic plants contain higher levels of bioactive substances like antioxidants, phenols, vitamin C, anthocyanins, than those grown by applying chemical fertilizers.

Organic food production compost-spread

Organic food production compost-spread

Organic farmers prepare compost in their backyards

Organic farmers prepare compost in their backyards

In chemical agriculture the implication of yield stagnation or declining productivity is severe, and these trends have surfaced despite rapid growths in the use of chemical fertilizers. Depletion of soil organic matter is the main cause of low productivity, which is considered one of the most serious threats to the sustainability of agriculture in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, most soils have less than 17 g/kg and some soils even less than 10 g/kg organic matter. Depletion of organic matter in soil is also caused by high cropping intensity. The interviews reveal that to maintain the same yields every year, farmers need to apply more and more fertilizers further worsening the quality of soil. Farmers have started realising that there is a problem with soil fertility related to organic matter depletion. Farmers say that organic matter increases yield, reduces production cost, improves crop growth and economy, increases water-holding capacity and improves the soil textture. They recognise soil with higher organic matter content by its dark brownish to black colour. However as fuel for cooking purposes is limited in Bangladesh and cow dung and crop residues are largely used to cook food, farmers cannot apply those to the field to keep the organic content of the soil high. Crop residues are also used as fodder for livestock. Farmers however are very eager to learn more about organic fertilizer management.
Multinational corporations could play an important role for organic food production and marketing. Small farms in Bangladesh cannot meet the day to day food and nutrition demand of their owners. The health sector is not on the priority list of the government to meet their health demands. It is observed that in the health sector the allocation of total outlay was 3.72 percent of the budget in 1973-78, which declined to 3.32 percent in 1980-85; it further fell to 3.05 percent in 1990-95 and then slightly rose to 3.17 percent in 1997-2002. Due to an increase in the cost of production compared to stagnation of rice yield, conventional farming is currently a non-profitable enterprise for farmers. Bangladeshi farmers are exploring new and profitable crops that might ensure higher income and improved livelihood.
Bangladesh is among the top 20 waste producing countries of the world. An estimate indicates that in Bangladesh the present solid waste generation rate of 3500 tonnes/day in capital Dhaka which may exceed 30 thousand tons/day by the year 2020. The mixed waste disposed of at dump sites is found having high organic moisture contents of about 80% and 50-70% by weight, respectively. Recycling of solid wastes in a systemic way could be a useful option for commercial production of organic fertilizers. Proper processing and recycling of solid wastes to turn the organic matter into manure can be immensely useful for improving soil quality and its productivity in crop fields.
Organic farming in Bangladesh faces four core problems – farmers are poor, knowledge about organic farming and its benefits is inadequate, insufficiency of organic inputs, and less organised marketing of organic foods. Co-operatives are known for providing efficient and effective ways to support rural development in many developing countries. They can help strengthen economic potentials; and ccreate useful ways to increase collective income, create new opportunities for work, and help improve the quality of social life. Bangladesh Milk Producers’ Cooperative Union Ltd, the country’s largest liquid milk production and marketing cooperative, locally known as “Milk Vita”, is a living model of success. Its membership includes 40,000 landless, small and marginal milk producers from 390 primary milk co-operative societies, who are the direct beneficiaries of the cooperative. For the development of organic farming; waste management, recycling of organic waste and residue, and manure from animals can be utilised to get a lot of organic matter for the soil. Funding for reseasrch to develop modern technology and equipment is necessary, but government sources of such funding are very limited.
With few exceptions, organic farming in Bangladesh is being practiced largely on an experimental basis. Total land area under organic cultivation here has been estimated at 0.177 million hectares, representing only 2% of the country’s total cultivable land. By 2005, only 100 of its traditional farms had converted to organic agriculture. NGOs including PROSHIKA are the main driving forces. With its Ecological Agriculture Program (EAP) PROSHIKA is the leading NGO promoting organic agriculture in the country. Since 1978 PROSHIKA began to spread ecological practices among its group members by growing a variety of seasonal vegetables. PROSHIKA’s EAP has involved around 0.8 million farmers in organic crop cultivation on 0.22 million acres of land. Out of these, 0.22 million acres of land farmers started to practice ecological agriculture on 0.08 million acres of land in the last five years.
Observing the benefits of cultivating organic crops by the NGO-supported farmers, a small number of conventional farmers have started to cultivate organic crops. Among the few private companies that have started to invest in organic farming, Kazi and Kazi Ltd. is the leading one in the country. They have established an organic tea garden at Tetulia, in the Panchagarh district. This tea is certified by the SGS organic production standard in accordance with the EU Regulation 2092/91, and it is marketed as Meena Tea .This company also produces fresh organic vegetables and herbs for sale in their supermarket, ‘Meena Bazar’, in Dhaka city.
On the other hand consumers can now afford to consume food sold at the expensive outlets as the per capita national income of Bangladesh has crossed triple digits. Reports say that per-capita income stood at USD 1,314 in Bangladesh. However 93% of middle or rich class people are interested to buy certified organic food depending on annual income. According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, in 2001 people spent 4.23 billion Bangladeshi Taka on fast food; this figure was reported to be Taka 10.78 billion in 2010. In 2010, the GDP share of the fast food industry was 0.77 percent and 8 million people were employed in this sector. But the growing fast food culture has attracted criticism because of health issues. Organic production represents only 2% of the country’s total cultivable land. To help improve this situation support for the development of Bangladesh’s organic farming with investment from big multinational corporations is a must. Organic farming is potentially a profitable enterprise, with a growing global market of organic grains, already being supplied with produces from 90 developing countries. But Bangladesh is not in the picture. Local consumers in Bangladesh have a fairly well-developed perception about organic produce and are interested in buying certified organic foods, and are even willing to pay more for them. To gain access to this market, however, certification is a prerequisite. It is very difficult for poor small-scale organic farmers alone to resolve the problems faced, and to develop their organic farms. To overcome the challenge for individual farmers in achieving this, big investment preferably from multinational corporations is needed. This will enable this sector to meet the necessary requirements of producing and marketing organic foods in both the domestic and export markets. This may also help secure an extra premium for the poor farmers of Bangladesh. The concerned agencies, through research and small-scale trials, should take the steps to enable the rapid expansion of organic farming in Bangladesh because this holds the potential to significantly reduce poverty among the poor farmers.
(The writer is a student of Environment Protection and Agricultural Food Production, University of Hohenheim, Germany)

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