DHAKA, Bangladesh: How this poor developing country in South Asia is able to feed its people numbering around 170 million on a land area half the size of the Philippines has been a source of amazement and envy to me. Bangladesh is self-sufficient in rice, ranks No. 3 in the world in vegetable and onion production, first in freshwater fish production and seventh in potato production. In the late 1970s, its people suffered from famine as a result of natural calamities that struck the country and for a good part of the 1980s and early 1990s, its agricultural production was in doldrums. How did Bangladesh turn its fortune and found gold in agriculture?

I am currently in Bangladesh attending the 36th session of the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific. The participants mostly focused their concerns on the challenges posed by Covid-19 on the food security of the region. They are also worried about the increasing threat of climate change on the region’s agricultural production. In addition, the participants stressed the imperative of meeting the sustainable development goals (SDGs) of the United Nations on food security by a renewed emphasis on agriculture and food production and the application of digital technology in farming.

At the sideline, however, my attention was caught by the impressive history and performance of the Bangladesh agricultural sector. How the government and its people were able to reverse the fortune of their agriculture sector is a glowing example from which we can draw valuable lessons for our country.

Prioritizing agriculture development

When Bangladesh gained its independence in 1971, its founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, immediately declared that the recovery and rehabilitation of its war-devastated economy depended on agriculture development. He noted that the vast majority of his people were in agriculture for a living, that the poorest of the poor were in the rural areas and the challenge of feeding a nation of more than 70 million Bangladeshi, packed in a small land area, posed enormous threat to its survival as an independent nation. To match his declaration, his government devoted half of its budget to the development of the agriculture sector. Unfortunately, Rahman and his family were assassinated in 1975 and the country was struck with a series of natural calamities. These events led to famine and starvation to many poor Bangladeshis.

When Rahman’s daughter took over power in 1996, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina continued with vigor the agricultural thrust and programs of her father. She devoted substantial resources to agricultural projects. Subsidies were extended to the farmers in the form of fertilizer, credit and quality seeds. They poured money into agricultural research and development to produce high-yielding crop varieties that are resilient when grown in unfavorable farm areas. They started to mechanize their farms to lower production cost while encouraging their surplus rural labor force to work in the manufacturing sector, particularly textile and garments. More recently, smart farm technology is being introduced such as the floating vegetable garden, aquaponics, and the use of digital technology to better monitor production activities in the farms and measure more accurately damages and losses.

Bangladesh also professionalized its agricultural bureaucracy by sending many of them to foreign countries, including the Philippines, for advanced studies in agriculture and related fields. They recruited intelligent, young and dynamic students who graduated from their agricultural universities to government service.

That agricultural development occupies a cornerstone of Bangladesh’s development thrust is shown by the fact that it devoted, in peso equivalent, around P180-billion budget this year to its Ministry of Agriculture. In contrast, our Department of Agriculture was allotted a budget of less than P90 billion this year. And the Philippines has twice the land area than that of Bangladesh.

Sustained attention and budget

Ostensibly, for the agriculture sector to develop, there is a need for sustained attention and significant resources poured to it. This is commensal because agriculture deals with plants and animals that need to be nurtured through the years to properly grow. 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, rhetorics will not work. Politicians declaring that they are so concerned about the plight of our poor tillers and fisherfolk yet do not provide adequate resources for the development of the sector are offering nothing but empty promises. They have to put their money where their mouth is if they really like to make a difference.

Farm consolidation and crop diversification will have to be pursued with more vigor if the government intends to make our farmers competitive and increase their income. Cultivating low value crops in a hectare or less (the average farm size in the Philippines) will not allow our farmers to be lifted 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, sustained and high budgetary support will have to be provided for no less than 10 to 20 years. This must be combined with the correct objective of enhancing competitiveness and efficiency of our cultivators instead of merely providing them with subsidies or dole outs that only temporarily mitigate their economic suffering but not liberate them from poverty. Such a perspective will result in the formulation and implementation of programs and projects that will enhance the competitiveness of our farmers. Backstopped by a highly competent and professional agricultural bureaucracy, the agriculture sector can then become a dynamic force in attaining a balanced development process for the country.

Unfortunately, most media personalities commenting on agriculture have the wrong perception that there is a quick fix solution to the ills of our agricultural sector. Some think that the solution lies in permanently not allowing imports to come in as our farmers are unable to compete with foreign producers. Others feel that unlimited subsidies or dole outs should be extended to our cultivators as a matter of right. Many feel that populist solutions to the problems of agriculture (like promoting organic farming) is the panacea to all the ills of the sector.

Unfortunately, such mind sets do not resonate with the science of agricultural development. This is the reason why we are stuck with a relatively inefficient and uncompetitive agriculture sector for many decades now. Our agriculture sector has proven to be a deadweight in our attempt to attain higher and sustained economic growth for our country.

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