By Chowdhury, Mohammad A.T.

Bangladesh is a rural-agrarian country in the humid tropics of Asia. Agriculture plays an important role in the growth and stability of the country, producing nearly one fourth of the economy's output and providing livelihoods to more than two thirds of the population. The sector, however, is facing many problems such as declining agricultural productivity, soil degradation and land conversion. Due to rapid population growth, Bangladesh is confronted with the question of how to achieve sustainable food production and food security for all. This can be addressed by adopting appropriate policy measures and institutional changes which are conducive to agricultural growth, while maintaining and sustaining the natural resource bases, i.e., land and water.

Food security has been and will remain a major concern for Bangladesh. This article addresses the issue of whether Bangladesh will be able to sustain intensive agriculture through monoculture, that is, self-sufficiency in rice production. In this paper, an attempt has also been made to examine the factors that influence the supply side (availability) of food security with a focus on physical constraints, development or technological issues and environmental challenges. The paper then discusses the prospects for sustainable agriculture in response to sustainable food security, while protecting human health and the environment.

Food security
Food plays a crucial role in the developing agro-based economy of Bangladesh. About 58 per cent of the total income of the population is allocated to food (HIES, 2007). The Government of Bangladesh is firmly committed to achieve food security for all, which exists "when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life" (FAO, 1998).

In Bangladesh, food security is integrally linked with agricultural production of staple foods such as rice. Typically, it means that food needs to be available at a national scale, which may be achieved through ensuring that major domestic cereal (rice and wheat) production and availability (including net food imports and national food stocks) are together sufficient to cover national requirements. Since the independence of Bangladesh (1971), the National Food Policy has focused on increasing total cereal output as one of the main strategies of national food security.

Food grain production
Since 1971, growth in the agricultural sector has been led by food grain production - mostly rice. It is evident from Figure 1 that rice dominates the food grain sub-sector in Bangladesh. As the principal crop, rice covers about 75 per cent of the total cropped area, accounts for 70 per cent of the value of total crop output, and constitutes 92 per cent of the total food grains produced annually in the country. Since the stable supply of rice has great implications for food security and political stability, its production in Bangladesh has been synonymous with national food security, particularly with achieving self-sufficiency in its production and stabilization in its prices (Hossain, 1989; Ahmed, 2001; BBS, 2007).

Implications for National Food Security
Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in increasing rice production through intensification of agriculture, mainly using modern seed, fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation technologies. This has made the food supply abundant and affordable. Advances in rice science and technology have enabled Bangladesh to meet the food needs of a fast growing population. Between 1971-1972 and 2004-2005, rice production has more than doubled; it increased from 9.8 million metric tons to 25.2 million metric tons (Chowdhury, 2009). Figure 2 shows that the total food grains production (including wheat) in 1991/92 was 19.3 million metric tons, which has gradually increased to 29.8 million tons in 2007/08, 6.13 per cent higher than the previous year's production. Total rice production rose to 28.9 million metric tons in 2007-2008, some 5.9 per cent above that of the previous year and 12.7 per cent above the five-year average. Bangladesh agriculture has grown at 3.2 per cent annually during 1991-2005 and the dominant source of this growth has been the crop sub-sector growing at 2.3 per cent per annum. During the same period, livestock and fisheries productions have grown annually at about 3 and 5.7 per cent, respectively (WFP; BBS, 2010).

Although acceleration of rice production has resulted in an increase in per capita availability, and has led to self-sufficiency by the early 1990s (Syem and Chowdhury, 2011), food security remains an elusive goal. Since the benefits of agricultural growth have bypassed many, especially the poor, it has become a major development issue now. Moreover, the availability of other foods has not significantly increased during the reference period, and the progress in nutritional outcome has remained slow. Although food grain is more available in good harvest years, Bangladesh still has a very low level of nutrition. In 2000, Bangladesh produced nearly 500 kilograms of cereals per head. Yet, amid this abundance, around one third of the population was living below the lower poverty line and income inequality has been worsening (World Bank, 2005). The availability of, and access to food produced domestically is now a key issue affecting basic survival, nutrition, national security and stability, making agricultural growth vital to addressing these challenges.

According to conservative estimates, the population of Bangladesh will reach 169 million by the year 2025. As a consequence, land-man ratio will decline gradually; to feed the extra millions, Bangladesh will need to produce about 27.8 million mt of clean rice by the year 2025, which is roughly 21 per cent higher than the production level of 2000 (Bhuiyan et al., 2002). The demand has to be met from our limited and shrinking natural resources bases - land and water. It is striking to note that agricultural production growth has already declined from a high of 4.7 per cent in the late 1990's to 2.8 per cent by 2008. In just one decade, agriculture has lost about 2 per cent of its momentum. While agriculture contributes to only 22 per cent of the country's gross domestic product, it provides jobs for 80 per cent of the total population. Moreover, only 37 per cent of Bangladesh's total area is arable land and natural disasters such as frequent floods, cyclones and droughts pose special problems for assuring food security (USAID, 2012).

The state of food insecurity
Despite remarkable economic progress, Bangladesh remains highly food-insecure. The country is ranked 129th out of 169 countries in the 2010 Human Development Index (HDI) published by UNDP, and ranked 70th among 122 countries in the 2011 Global Hunger Index (GHI) published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Around 60 million people consume less than the minimum daily recommended amount of food (BBS, 2012). Achieving gender equality remains a challenge, as significant disparities persist in health, education and income. The country's flat deltaic terrain, high population density, susceptibility to natural disasters and high levels of poverty make it among the most vulnerable countries in the world. On a national scale, the challenges of food insecurity are immense and equally critical.

Undernourishment: Bangladesh faces an enormous challenge in feeding her population. Although cereal consumption (mostly rice) has been on the increase, undernutrition indicators remain alarmingly high, and the rich-poor gap is widening. There is also a gender gap; the most vulnerable group is women, who eat last and eat less and are the most malnourished in Bangladesh. The recent price hike for rice and other commodities in Bangladesh severely threatens the food and nutrition security of an already compromised and disadvantaged population. Although the proportion of undernourished people had reduced from 39 per cent in 1979-1981 to 30 per cent in 2002-2004, the absolute number rose to 44 million from that of 33.3 million in 1979-1981, because of the growth of total population. The prevalence of malnutrition in rural areas is highest in the world and high throughout the country. During 1995-2003, about 52 per cent of children under 5 were underweight, and nearly 49 per cent suffered from stunting (World Bank, 2005). The average Bangladeshi diet lacks diversification with 75 per cent of the calories and 55 per cent of the protein consumed in an average daily diet coming from rice alone. Currently, about 43 per cent of children under 5 in Bangladesh are stunted due to continuous malnourishment as a result of poor feeding habits and lack of access to nutritional foods.

Poverty: The major food security problem in Bangladesh is that around half the population lives below the established food-based upper poverty line (2,122 kcal/person/day), and a third remains below the lower poverty line (consumes fewer than 1,805 kcal/person/day - the minimum standard set by the World Food Programme). The latter group lives in extreme poverty and is more undernourished despite the notable increases in aggregate national food grain production (World Bank, 2008). Although the percentage of the population living below the poverty line came down to 31.5 in 2010 from 40 in 2005, due to consistent economic and remittance growth about 17.6 per cent of the population is still extremely poor (BBS, 2010).

Dimensions: There is an important geographic dimension to poverty, vulnerability to climatic shocks and food insecurity in Bangladesh. These events have a disproportionate effect on people in marginal and risk-prone areas. Food insecurity also has a gender dimension as women and adolescent girls are especially vulnerable in a food insecure situation; a rural-urban dimension as most of the hardcore poor live in remote rural areas; a population dimension as regions with extreme poverty are more exposed to hunger and food insecurity; and an environmental dimension as poor people living in adverse peripheral locations are more likely to be vulnerable due to periodic climatic shocks (WFP, 2005). Within households, children, the disabled, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and the elderly face relatively high nutritional risks. Recent data indicates that 40 per cent of adolescent girls, 46 per cent of non-pregnant, and 39 per cent of pregnant women are anemic.

Regional variation: Food insecurity in Bangladesh is characterized by remarkable regional variations. Food insecure populations can be identified on a map by their geographic origin. The Food Security Atlas of Bangladesh (2004) prepared jointly by the Government of Bangladesh (Programming Division of the Planning Commission in cooperation with the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics/BBS, Ministry of Planning) and the Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping Unit of the UN World Food Programme contributes to a better understanding of food insecurity in the country. The atlas is not only an important reference tool but also a useful visual aid to depict the regional distribution patterns of the ultra-poor in Bangladesh.

Development/technological issues and the environment
Technologies and systems have helped Bangladesh stimulate a steady, low-priced supply of food year after year. Despite increases in input application, yields per acre have declined or stayed the same on about two thirds of the area planted with modern high yielding varieties (HYVs) in the 1990s (Hossain, 1989; Pagiola, 1995). Further, maintaining the growth in yield, or even holding yields at current levels, requires greater amounts of chemical fertilizer input, implying that the quality of the underlying soil resource will be deteriorating. As cultivatable lands lose their fertility after a certain number of cultivation cycles, these require proper soil treatment. Depletion of organic matter, degradation of its physical and chemical properties, reduction in the availability of major micronutrients, imbalance in the fertilizer application and build-up of toxicity through improper use of pesticides are the major reasons for soil fertility decline. Furthermore, sheet and gully erosion drain out fertile soils. Out of 27 agroecological zones in Bangladesh, 18 fall in the nutrient grades of poor to very poor (Ahmed and Hasanuzzaman, 1998).

Economic growth, industrialization and rural-urban migration are leading to rapid urbanization. An important implication of rapid urbanization is that some of the fertile agricultural land has to be converted to other uses. The rice field has already started declining in Bangladesh. The 1996 agricultural census recorded that the land area operated by rural households has declined from 9.2 million ha in 1983 to 8.2 million ha in 1996. Thus, about one million ha of land have been transferred out of agriculture - a net loss of 82,000 ha per annum. At the current rate, growth of crops will be compromised by agricultural land decreasing at a rate of 1 per cent per annum (Halim and Rahman, 2004).

Climate change impact: Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change impacts. According to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change's (IPCC) latest assessment report (2007), climate change will have a severe impact on global food security. The poorest regions with the highest levels of chronic hunger are likely to be among the worst affected by climate change, according to FAO. Being the largest delta in the world located at the downstream of the second largest river system, Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable to climatic events. The probable impacts of global climate change, particularly sea level rise and the associated impact on ecosystems and economic loss, adds to the already daunting array of environmental issues.

Sustainable agriculture
What is sustainable agriculture?
The term 'sustain,' derived from the Latin word sustinere (sub-, from below and tenere, to hold), to keep in existence or maintain, implies long-term support or permanence. Sustainability is a scientific principle indicating the notion of natural systems enduring over time. A sustainable system is one that survives and functions over some specified time; it can be extended or prolonged over many generations (long-term) rather than just a few years. As it pertains to agriculture, sustainable describes farming systems that are "capable of maintaining their productivity and usefulness to society indefinitely. Such systems must be resource-conserving, socially supportive, commercially competitive, and environmentally sound" (Ikerd, 1990).

However, many people are still skeptical that in such a quickly changing world, can anything be sustainable? If nothing else can be achieved, the term 'sustainable agriculture' has at least provided 'talking points', a sense of direction, and a sense of urgency, which has sparked much excitement and innovative thinking in the agricultural world. Although critics of sustainable agriculture claim, among other things, that its methods result in lower crop yields and higher land use, a wholesale commitment to its practices will mean inevitable food shortages for a world population expected to exceed 9 billion by the year 2050. There is recent evidence, however, suggesting that over time, sustainable agriculture can be as productive as industrial farms.

In a recent study, 12 indicators were selected to evaluate the sustainability of agriculture in Tangail District, Bangladesh. A household survey, soil sample analysis, field observation and discussions with key informants were conducted in two different production systems; conventional and ecological. Significant differences were found between the two production systems in crop diversification, soil fertility management, pest and disease control methods and use of agrochemicals. However, no significant variations were observed in other indicators such as land use pattern, crop yield and stability, risk, uncertainties and food security. Although crop yield and financial return were found to be slightly higher in the conventional system, the economic return and value addition per unit of cultivated land did not show any difference between the systems. Evidence also suggests that sustainable agriculture has a tendency to be more socially acceptable than conventional agriculture as it requires considerably less agrochemicals. Further, it adds more organic matter into the soil, provides balanced foods, and requires higher local inputs without compromising output and financial benefits (Rasul and Thapa, 2004).

Sustainable agricultural production is perceived to be a viable option for Bangladesh considering the continued land degradation and soil nutrient loss in the country. The sustainability of conventional agriculture has been under serious threat from the continuous degradation of land and water resources, and from declining crop yields due to indiscriminate uses of agrochemicals. Given the land-scarce situation of the country, subsidies have been provided for the intensification of agriculture including inputs such as HYV seeds, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, and irrigation equipment to enable farmers to adapt these technologies for increasing crop production - mostly rice. In contrast, the area under pulses, oilseeds, fodder and natural inland fisheries is declining rapidly. Likewise, traditional cropping practices such as mixed farming, crop rotation, and intercropping are gradually disappearing, giving rise to monocropping and higher dependency on external inputs. This transformation, along with intensification and imbalanced use of chemical fertilizers, has further led to the deterioration of soil quality and reduced fertility. More than 65 per cent of total agricultural land in Bangladesh is suffering from declining soil fertility, and about 85 per cent of net cultivable land has less organic matter than the minimum requirement for maintaining soil productivity (Hossain and Kashem, 1997; Rahman and Thapa, 1999).

Benefits of sustainable agriculture
Sustainable farming is more of a way of life to its practitioners than merely a law or regulation. At each step taken, it benefits farmers, brings welfare to their families, fosters community at large, and helps preserve and protect the environment for future generations. Benefits of sustainable agriculture are many and varied. Some benefits are described below:

  • Production of healthier foods: Sustainable farming is much more beneficial than commercial agriculture. It produces foods with minimal use of synthetic fertilizers and other hazardous chemical inputs. Many sustainable farms do not use any chemical fertilizers at all.
  • Conservation and preservation: Sustainable farmers recognize the importance of protecting and enhancing the carrying capacity of the ecosystems. The waste generated from sustainable farming stays within the farm's ecosystem. There is hardly any scope for build-up or causing environmental pollution.
  • Economically viable farms: Farm workers are paid competitive wages and benefits, and are not dependent on subsidies from the government. Sustainable farms support local economies by providing jobs for members of the community and by purchasing supplies and materials from local businesses.
  • Socially just and ecologically fit farming systems: The vast majority of sustainable farms are run by family members. They bring people the freshest and best quality food available in the market. Farmers are able to use manure as fertilizer for their crops. Animals in a sustainable farm are well cared for, treated humanely and with respect.

Much has been done in Bangladesh to increase food grain production to improve food security of the poor since the early 1960s. However, much will need to be done to meet the needs of a rapidly growing and increasingly urbanized population. The goal of achieving sustainable food security in the decades ahead emerges as one of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced. Bangladesh will face enormous challenge by 2020 in trying to achieve food self-reliance and to ensure food security for all. Special attention has to be focused on the food insecure, disadvantaged and lagging regions. Demand for rice will increase with the increase in population. The challenge of maintaining the food-population balance is great because almost all the cultivable land in Bangladesh is in use. Developing better HYVs, improving extension efforts, using fertilizer and pesticides efficiently and incorporating better soil and water management can achieve agricultural growth. Agricultural diversification is very much needed, not only to maintain the fertility of the soil but also to reap the benefits of comparative advantages in a globalizing market.

(References available upon request)