Dhaka, Bangladesh: How this poor developing country in South Asia is able to feed its population of about 170 million in an area half the size of the Philippines amazed me and I resent it. Bangladesh is self-sufficient in rice, ranks third in the world in vegetable and onion production, first in freshwater fish production and seventh in potato production. In the late 1970s its population suffered from famine as a result of the natural calamities that struck the country and for much of the 1980s and early 1990s its agricultural production was in the doldrums. How did Bangladesh make a fortune and find gold in agriculture?
I am currently in Bangladesh to attend the 36th session of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific. The participants mainly focused their concerns on the challenges posed by Covid-19 on food security in the region. They also worry about the growing threat of climate change to agricultural production in the region. In addition, participants highlighted the imperative to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on food security with a focus on agriculture and food production and the application of digital technology in farming.
On the sidelines, however, my attention was drawn to the history and impressive performance of Bangladesh’s agricultural sector. The way the government and its people managed to turn around the situation of their agricultural sector is a shining example of which we can learn valuable lessons for our country.
Priority to agricultural development
When Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, its founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, immediately declared that the recovery and rehabilitation of its war-torn economy depended on the development of agriculture. He noted that the vast majority of his people lived on agriculture, that the poorest of the poor lived in rural areas, and that the challenge of feeding a nation of over 70 million Bangladeshis, crammed into a small area, posed enormous threats to its survival as an independent nation. To echo his statement, his government devoted half of its budget to the development of the agricultural sector. Unfortunately, Rahman and his family were murdered in 1975 and the country was hit by a series of natural calamities. These events led to starvation and starvation of many poor Bangladeshis.
When Rahman’s daughter took power in 1996, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina vigorously continued her father’s impulse and agricultural programs. It has devoted substantial resources to agricultural projects. Subsidies were given to farmers in the form of fertilizers, credit and quality seeds. They have invested money in agricultural research and development to produce high-yielding crop varieties that hold up when grown in unfavorable agricultural areas. They began to mechanize their farms to reduce production costs while encouraging their surplus rural labor to work in manufacturing, especially textiles and clothing. More recently, smart farming technologies have been introduced, such as the floating vegetable garden, aquaponics and the use of digital technology to better monitor production activities on farms and more accurately measure damage and losses.
Bangladesh has also professionalized its agricultural bureaucracy by sending many of them to foreign countries, including the Philippines, for higher education in agriculture and related fields. They recruited smart, young and dynamic students who graduated from their agricultural universities in government service.
The fact that agricultural development is central to Bangladesh’s development momentum is demonstrated by the fact that this year, in peso equivalent terms, it has allocated a budget of around 180 billion pesos to its Ministry of Agriculture. In contrast, our Ministry of Agriculture has been allocated a budget of less than 90 billion pesos this year. And the Philippines has twice the land area of Bangladesh.
Attention and budget supported
Apparently, for the agricultural sector to grow, it needs sustained attention and significant resources devoted to it. It is commensal because agriculture deals with plants and animals that need to be nurtured over the years to grow properly. It will be difficult to promote agricultural development if there is no continuity of objectives, programs and projects from one political administration to another.
More importantly, rhetoric will not work. Politicians declaring that they are so concerned about the plight of our poor laborers and fishers but do not provide adequate resources for the development of the sector offer only empty promises. They have to put their money where they say if they really want to make a difference.
Farm consolidation and crop diversification will have to be pursued more vigorously if the government intends to make our farmers competitive and increase their incomes. Growing low-value crops on one hectare or less (the average farm size in the Philippines) will not lift our farmers out of poverty, even if the government provides massive subsidies.
It is a cardinal principle in economics that growth is a function of investment. For our agricultural sector to develop, it will require sustained and high budgetary support for no less than 10 to 20 years. This must be combined with the correct objective of improving the competitiveness and efficiency of our farmers instead of simply providing them with subsidies or allowances which only temporarily alleviate their economic suffering but do not free them from poverty. . Such a perspective will result in the formulation and implementation of programs and projects that will strengthen the competitiveness of our farmers. Supported by a highly competent and professional agricultural bureaucracy, the agricultural sector can then become a dynamic force in achieving a balanced development process for the country.
Unfortunately, most media personalities who comment on agriculture have the false perception that there is a silver bullet to the ills of our agricultural sector. Some believe that the solution lies in a permanent ban on imports because our farmers are unable to compete with foreign producers. Others feel that unlimited subsidies or allowances should be given to our farmers as a matter of right. Many believe that populist solutions to the problems of agriculture (such as the promotion of organic farming) are the panacea for all the sector’s ills.
Unfortunately, such mindsets do not fit the science of agricultural development. This is why we have been stuck with a relatively inefficient and uncompetitive agricultural sector for many decades now. Our agricultural sector has proven to be a dead weight in our attempt to achieve higher and sustained economic growth for our country.