Reaping the Benefits | The Agriculture Sector, a Transformative & One of the Country’s Highest Employing Industries

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On the anniversary of 5 decades of Bangladesh, the agriculture sector has had a transformative journey, and is one of the country’s highest employing industries
50 Year Development of our Agro Sector

While developing economies are changing their concentration from agriculture to secondary and tertiary sectors, the agricultural industry in Bangladesh is still a strong contributor to the economic statistics. As Bangladesh is primarily an agrarian economy, this industry is the single largest producing sector as 70% of the population depend on it for their livelihood. It contributes to 14% of the country’s GDP and employs around 40% of the total labor force. 60 percent of overall agricultural output comes from the crops sub-sector, followed by fisheries and livestock.

However, the contribution to total GDP fell from around 18 percent to 14 percent in recent years. For the past three decades the average growth of the agriculture sector has hovered around 3.2 percent—as opposed to manufacturing (7.5%) and the services sector (6.2%).

Nevertheless, even though the relative significance of income and employment from agriculture has fallen in Bangladesh, the absolute contribution has increased. On average there has been a 40 percent increase over the last few years. Additionally, a significant fraction of the underprivileged rely on agriculture as the principal source of income and employment. Indirect agricultural dependence is revealed through employment in agro-centric services and rural businesses. Moreover, Agriculture provides basic raw materials for industrial processing and many agro-processing industries are fully dependent on agriculture for basic raw materials which include jute, fruit juice, spices, rice milling, sugar, tea, edible oil, tobacco, jute textiles, cotton textiles, starch and others which are considered to be cash crops for the country. As such agriculture can serve as an influential driving force to not only increase livelihoods, but also the whole economy of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s $1 Billion Export Milestone

Bangladesh’s earnings from agricultural products grew multifold in the last 12 years and the export revenue has crossed the one-billion-dollar milestone for the first time in 2020-2021. This is astonishingly almost a 20% rise from the past fiscal year, which is even more commendable given that we are facing a sluggish economy under the COVID-19 pandemic.

Compared to 2008-2009 where agriculture exports amounted to $122 million, the last financial year witnessed export earnings tripled to an extraordinary $1,028 growth. According to the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) this represented a jump of 0.78% in 2008-09 to 2.87% in 2020-21 to the contribution of agriculture to the national exports earnings of Bangladesh.

Roots of Progress

This tremendous progress was driven by some sub-categories. Dry food registered the highest increase from $193 million in 2019-20 to $283 in 2020-21, almost 46%. Fruit exports also grew by 18%. However, not all sub-sectors flourished. vegetable exports faced a 27% drop from $164 million to $119 million. Bangladesh’s now diversified agriproducts export basket comprises a range of products including ready-to-eat dry food confectionaries, fruits, vegetables, tobacco, tea, cut flowers and also, spices.

Farmers through the Ages

According to the latest statistics from the 2016-2017 Labor Force Survey by BBS, a total of 22.7 million people involved in agriculture, 45% are women and of all women in the labor market, they constitute almost 73 percent

Bumper Crop

Rice production in Bangladesh was around 12 million metric tons in the late 1970s. It has now increased to more than 36 million metric tons. Wheat contributed nearly 2 million metric tons around just before the new century set in. The yield later dwindled to nearly 700,000 million metric tons in around 2006-2007 while maize has steadily grown to around 3.5 million metric tons by 2018-2019. Crops for which yield showed either a negative or stationary situation include pulses, sugarcane and possibly jute. In case of pulses, in early 1980s, the officially reported production was around 500,000 metric tons which fell to less than half of that in around 2009-2010 before doubling again by 2017-2018. The other commercial crop that has apparently shown volatility over time is jute.

Fisheries Flow

Based on official statistics of the Department of Fisheries, fish production is stated to have been rising at around 5 percent annually over the last 20 years. The data shows that by 2017-2018 pond fishery yielded just above 19 lakh tons accounting for some 44 percent of total fish production and just about 79 percent of cultured fish catch.

Rising Livestock and Poultry

News outlets quote various sources that there may be commercial poultry farms numbering anywhere between 65,000 and 150,000. The number of eggs produced per year is estimated to range from 20-33 million eggs/day, a difference greater than 50 percent. With the new generation increasingly involved in livestock trade especially keeping in annual Eid markets there may be space for growth in the livestock economy.

Old Issues, New Packaging

Even though the feudal zamindari system was done away with in the 1950s, the British form of exploitation of the poor farmers has been replaced by some middle-men in recent years. In addition, this sector is hindered by extensive pressure on arable land, unjust prices, inadequate access to inputs and resources, and climate change risks.

Seasons of Challenge

Vegetables, fruits and other perishable agriproducts traders strongly believe that Bangladesh can earn much more than $1 billion from agriproduct export and opine that the country’s optimal potential has been reached.

Chief complaints arise in the area that exporters do have the proper policies assistance. Moreover, limited availability of cargo space remains another hindrance to carry out business activities internationally.

Exporters suggest that trade revenue will increase in Bangladesh from the agriculture sector. The government individually or in conjunction with the private sector can install more processing plants, packaging facilities, packing houses, hygienic cargo villages, improved infrastructures at airports and more air cargo facilities.

By contrast, according to local newspaper reports, officials at the Ministry of Agriculture and Department of Agricultural Extension have stated that exporters need to improve product quality, ensure sanitary measures and adopt good agricultural practices (GAP) to gain greater share of the business in international markets.

Innovation for Good

Undoubtedly the adoption of technological innovation in agriculture will lead to improving cultivation efficiency, labor productivity, greater food security and quality exports.

Mechanization Miracles

To mitigate the increasing droughts, flooding and extreme weather events that Bangladesh is facing due to climate change, rural communities can evolve by adopting innovative, localized solutions that merge sustainable practices and tech. Mechanization has various benefits that include an overall increase in cropping intensity, yield, decrease in wastage, and saving in production cost in comparison to traditional farming techniques. Mechanization utilizes technologies like axial flow pumps, reapers and seed drills – to assist farmers thrive under gradually difficult growing environments.

Axial Flow Pumps Acceleration

The axial flow pump is an inexpensive surface water irrigation technology that can lower costs up to 50 percent at areas where the water source is close to the field surface, and therefore is easy to pump up to irrigate fields.

Expediting Extraction

Groundwater extraction is another common approach to irrigation in much of South Asia. This low-energy and low-carbon emissions surface water substitute can assist in lowering high energy costs, as well as, decreasing present health risks due to natural arsenic contamination of groundwater in Bangladesh.

Reaping Success

Reapers allow farmers to cope with increasing labor shortage by mechanically harvesting and planting the next season’s crops. The two-wheeled mechanical reaper is particularly popular in Bangladesh and can save farmers 30 percent of their usual harvesting costs.

Drilling Dividends

Seed fertilizer drills till, plant and fertilize crops in lines concurrently and with greater accuracy. These drills are frequently used as attachments on two-wheeled tractors and can also allow farmers to plant using conservation agriculture practices like strip tilling (a system that tills only small strips of land into which seed and fertilizer are placed, which reduces production costs, conserves soil moisture and helps boost yields).

Tipping Point

According to studies, Total factor Productivity (TIP) reflects the impact of investments in rural infrastructure that grew at a modest rate of 0.6 percent to 1.0 percent over a 50-year period from 1950 to 2000. TIP can be improved through expanding farm size, promoting crop diversification and advanced benefits through research and development.

Financial Innovation.

Farmers tend to have fluctuating seasonal revenue. Even though there are various Microfinance Institutions (MFI), that support farmers in accessibility of farm equipment, and state-subsidized purchase options, there exists no national organization or entity that produces and sells machinery at below-market prices. During peak planting season, the increased demand for machinery rentals skyrockets significantly and this impacts eventual output.

The Genetic Factor

High-Yielding Varieties (HYV) are integral in securing cropping intensity, which is over 190%. They also are important in maintaining the output levels of integral crops such as Boro rice in the path towards sustainable self-sufficiency. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) offer a solution to climate change prone Bangladesh by engineering crop varieties that are resistant to weather conditions, pests, flooding and/or saline intrusion.

Bangladesh’s first local GMO, Bt Brinjal, was launched in 2014 and a 2019 Institute of Food Policy Research (IFPRI) study showed that Bt Brinjal farmers benefitted from a 55 percent rise in revenues, increasing net profit by over BDT 30,000 per hectare.

Upskilling Ahead

Labor needs to be mobilized and trained in the operation of technology to reap their benefits. Otherwise availability of new tools without users does not assist the average farmer.

Digital Markets and the Middle Man

Fair prices can be given to all concerned parties if the middle-men are cut out. Hence online platforms can be encouraged to ensure buyers come in direct contact with sellers.

IOT Induction

The Internet of Things (IoT) technologies can involve remote monitoring of conditions essential to farming output such as soil salinity, fertility, temperature, etc. through one device in the cropping zone, and transmission of that data to one or multiple data terminals or computers. Data driven monitoring can only assist cultivation and production.

Geospatial Guardianship

Monitoring of farms and fisheries through satellite technology can assist in international compliance, as well as pave the way for online agro-insurance premiums verification (and payment) if coupled with artificial intelligence. This would bring in much needed insurance coverage to farmers without long delays while also bringing increased confidence of international buyers.

Digital Crowdfunding

Enabling blockchain-enabled peer-to-peer lending would pave the way for a digital platform to facilitate crowdfunding of farming activity so that farmers can find more funding channels.

More Gains for Marginalized

Priority strategies in advocating agriculture include addressing shrinking average farm size and diseconomies of scale for marginal farmers.

Climate Change Capacity Building

Global climate change adaptation strategies to lower adverse impact on water availability, quality and disruptions could be adopted as policy interventions. There is a need to rehabilitate coastal embankment and improve water efficiency through long-term water management strategies.

Media Momentum

Media and community support and engagement has and can contribute to significant momentum to agriculture revitalization and overall efficiency. This can lead to further promotion of agriculture as a contemporary entrepreneurship track for the new generation value and also encouraging skills development.

Celebrating the $1 billion exports earnings of agro-products on the silver jubilee of Bangladesh’s birth is indeed an extraordinary feat. However, with the right skilling, tech and policy support Bangladesh’s promising agriculture industry can reach greater milestones in the days ahead.

Photographs: Din M Shibly

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