Meeting the challenges of future food security


Financial Express (Dhaka) | 20 December 2010


Shamsul Huq Zahid

Land is a scarce as well as valuable resource in Bangladesh which is one of the world's most densely populated countries. Demand for land comes from different directions, particularly for building houses, roads, embankments, industries and, more importantly, for producing food and other crops.

As the issue of food security has of late become a major concern, the authorities are considering a number of options. The latest statistics on land use pattern have reasons to give rise to worries among the policymakers. Studies have found that nearly one per cent agricultural land is lost annually to meet the needs other than agriculture and if the trend persists, experts claim, no land would be available for agriculture by the end of another 50 years.

One might find the projection too pessimistic. But the fact remains that with the current rate of population growth, the pressure on very limited land resources would continue to mount in the coming years. It would be hard to resist people from building homes on his or her own land and, at the same time, the government would have no options but to build more infrastructures such as roads, bridges and culverts, educational institutions and health facilities. For the sake of the economy, more and more industries and factories, special economic zones etc., would come up, eating up more arable land.

Yet the government cannot overlook the need for a planned use of land under a proper land management policy. The policymakers have unfortunately paid little attention until recently to the issue of land use. Thus, it took 30 years for the government to draft a land use policy that recognizes the land use constraints and promotion of agricultural use of land. The policy, formulated in 2002, highlights many factors, including declining land productivity due to unplanned and improper use of land. But the policy failed to draw a long-term vision about the land use and suggest ways how to strike a balance between the process of industrialization and traditional agro-based economy.

Though the total area under agriculture has shrunk over the years, land productivity, in terms of rice production, has gone up for the last three decades, thanks to high-yielding and hybrid varieties of rice. Despite the fact that the per-acre yield of rice in Bangladesh is still lower than many major rice-growing countries in Asia, the increase in overall production of the main staple has helped in meeting the domestic demand to a great extent. However, with rice occupying most of the cultivable areas, the country has increasingly become dependent on the import of other essentials such as pulses, oil seeds and spices.

Moreover, the situation relating to the supply of food from domestic sources vis-à-vis the demand for the same is unlikely to remain inelastic due to increase in population size and shrinkage in cultivable land. Even the best land use policy -- in all probability, the government would never be interested to formulate one -- could prove useless. Under the circumstances, the country would have to increase the import of farm products, including cereals, causing a serious drain on its foreign exchange reserve.

Authorities have of late started exploring a few viable options such as taking lease of vast areas of fallow agricultural land in the neighbouring Myanmar and in some African states. Unfortunately, Myanmar has turned down a Bangladesh request for taking lease of its arable land, close to the border of the two countries, for growing rice and other crops. The not-so-cozy relations between the two neighbours might have come into play to frustrate the initiative.

The Bangladesh foreign ministry, according to a newspaper report, has set its eye on some African countries, including Liberia, Ghana, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Kenya. Private entrepreneurs from other continents are already growing agricultural crops taking lease of land in a number of African countries. Some foreign ministry officials have reportedly visited these countries and are satisfied with the prospect of taking lease of land there.

The foreign office has also prepared a draft of lease agreement that provides for sharing of produce and entry of Bangladeshi farmers to those countries. Hopefully, the authorities concerned would be serious enough to implement the scheme that is not anyway a lasting solution.

The authorities should look into taking lease of vast areas of arable land in South Sudan, which is expected to become an independent country in the near future. Thousands of miles of fertile land along the White Nile have remained fallow in the war-torn Christian-dominated South Sudan. This scribe had the opportunity of visiting that part of Sudan in 2007. It appeared that land suitable for growing any crop had not been cultivated for many decades. The locals, who have never tried taking up farming, are entirely dependent on neighbouring Uganda for their daily food needs. The White Nile is rich in different fish species but the Sudanese are found totally uninterested in catching them for consumption.

The government, while making efforts to strike a balance between the farming and other needs through the enforcement of suitable land use policy, should explore all other options, though temporary, to meet its future food needs.

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