Bangladesh's food production grows -- but not fast enough

Bangladesh is tackling crucial questions about its agricultural development. Faced with a bulging population of 100 million people, growing at an average annual rate of 3 percent, economic planners and policymakers here are seeking new ways to produce more food at a faster rate, so that everyone here can have enough to eat.

Some long-term answers to hunger lie in researching high-yielding crops, teaching farmers to get better results from improved farming methods, changing patterns of food consumption, and, not least of all, seeking continued foreign assistance.

Foreign aid is a crucial factor in Bangladesh's enduring struggle against famine. But just as important is the hard work of the country's farmers -- many of whose families often suffer from malnutrition.

These farmers, who often have to work amid the vagaries of weather, have boosted Bangladesh's food production from just above 10 million tons in 1972-73, the first fiscal year since the nation's independence, to nearly 15.8 million tons in fiscal year 1984-85.

``The hopeful thing is that food production in the last 10 years has increased at a rate higher than the rate of population growth,'' says Patrick Peterson, chief of the food and agriculture section of the United States Agency for International Development's mission to Bangladesh.

Despite this increase in food production, Bangladesh still has a food deficit. Some 80 percent of its people are malnourished.

In another 10 years, it is estimated, there will be 125 million people in Bangladesh and the country will need to produce more than 22 million tons of rice and wheat annually to feed them. With a production growth rate of 3.5 percent per year maintained throughout the decade there will still be a food deficit of 1.25 million tons. It will be even higher if the grains needed for seed are added.

Meanwhile, analyses show that irrigation, which has contributed most to the recent agricultural growth, has increased slowly. Of the more than 27 million acres on which grain is grown, only about 5 million are mechanically irrigated. In addition, despite the use of improved seeds and fertilizer, the yield per acre has increased at a rate of only 2.5 percent.

Mr. Peterson advocates more intense research to evolve rain-fed rice which would mature in shorter periods so that the farmers could use their small plots more often. Lying in the field for a shorter period, the crop would also get a chance to escape the frequent floods during the monsoon season.

Despite the destruction caused by a cyclonic storm in May and subsequent flooding, however, there are some hopeful indicators that Bangladesh is indeed on the long, slow road to improving agricultural production.

The discovery of high-yielding crop varieties has increased the production of monsoon rice (aman), which is Bangladesh's largest food grain crop, by over 260,000 tons in the past five years. The production of winter rice, called boro, has also jumped by nearly 1.5 million tons in five years. Last year the country also produced 1.4 million tons of wheat, a crop Bangladesh did not previously produce at all.

``We now want to double wheat and boro production and up aman production by 30 percent in the next five years,'' says Yusuf Zai, a member of the Bangladesh Planning Commission. ``Our strategy for this will be to teach farmers how to get better results from fertilizer and making more use of irrigation.''

In Bangladesh's third five-year plan for development, special emphasis is being given to helping small farmers produce vegetables, fruit, and fish to increase their income and reduce dependence on cultivating rice. For the long term Zai suggests that consumption of rice should be reduced by increasing the consumption of wheat, potatos, and protein food.

``But whether Bangladesh's plans about agriculture will succeed depends on whether the big landowners, who own the largest chunk of country, will want more produce out of their farms or not,'' says Dr. Kamal Siddiqi, a local bureaucrat.

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