Lack of finance prevents Bangladesh farmers from diversifying their rice crops

  • About 15 million farmers in Bangladesh grow just five to six rice varieties, despite the availability of more than 130 different rice varieties, giving rise to an effective monoculture that leaves farmers at higher risk from pests and diminishing yields.
  • Observers attribute this to a lack of support from the government to help farmers explore other rice varieties, which typically have lower yields and fetch lower prices than the most popular varieties.
  • Lack of financial support means many farmers have to take out high-interest microcredit loans for their operational expenses, which in turn compels them to grow the most profitable rice varieties, locking them in a vicious cycle.
  • Observers have called on the government to do more to incentivize farmers to diversity their rice crops, pointing to long-term benefits in the form of improved soil health and resilience to pest attacks.

Bangladesh is home to more than 130 different rice varieties, but a lack of economic incentives means farmers here grow only a handful of the higher-yielding types. This has given rise to a virtual monocrop system, which farmers and experts say threatens both long-run production and soil quality.

Most farmers, meanwhile, blame a vicious cycle of dependence on high interest micro-credit for agro-input, which leaves them overdependent on high yield varieties, and little room to experiment with other varieties.

Abdur Razzak,a 48-year-old farmer in the northern district of Dinajpur, has for the past 15 years grown the most popular varieties — known as BRRI-28 and BRRI-29 — which yield around 6 metric tons of rice per hectare of land, or about 2.7 short tons per acre.

“A couple of years back we tried BRRI-35,” he says. “[We] dropped it the next year as it yielded only about 3 [metric] tons per hectare,” or 1.3 short tons an acre. Making matters worse, the market price of BRRI-35 and other lesser-known varieties is lower than that of the popular varieties because of the lack of demand.

Like Razzak, some 15 million farmers in Bangladesh depend just on five to six rice varieties in an effort to maximize their output, cultivating them on 8.6 million hectares (21.3 million acres) of land. That’s made Bangladesh the fourth-highest rice-producing country in the world, churning out 36 million metric tons of rice annually to feed its 170 million people.

A paddy field in Bangladesh. A cycle of dependence on high interest micro-credit for agro-input leaves farmers overdependent on high yield rice varieties, and little room to experiment with other varieties. Image by Abu Siddique/Mongabay.

Other popular varieties are BRRI-58, 50, 63 and 74, all named after the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute that developed them. But it’s BRRI-28 and 29 that dominate, accounting for around 50% of all the rice grown in the country, because of their better yields and market price.

Both farmers and researchers say the return on investment is the main reason for this practice, which has given rise to an effective monoculture. The high cost of production — ranging from irrigation and labor to fertilizers and pesticides — as well uncompetitive prices mean farmers have no incentive to explore beyond the dominant varieties.

Lack of access to affordable financing

In a country where agriculture is a mainstay of the economy and farmers play the chief role in ensuring food security, farmers have little formal access to low-cost financing for their operational needs.

Generally, there are three sources of financial support available to Bangladeshi farmers. First, there are dadon, local lenders who charge exorbitant interest rates on loans that must be paid back in weekly installments. Then there are nongovernmental organizations that provide microcredit loans, followed by state-owned banks.

Although the latter, with their lower interest rates, would be the ideal option for farmers, most shy away from banks because of the convoluted bureaucracy. The government established the Bangladesh Krishi Bank in 1973 with the aim of supporting farmers, but even today it hasn’t gained much traction.

“Unfortunately, bureaucratic tangles, involvement of third parties in the loan disbursement process, and political intervention has made the bank ineffective,” said Fazle Rabbi Sadeque Ahmed, deputy managing director of the Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF).

Between the dadon and the NGOs, farmers tend toward the latter. But even here, the loans aren’t cheap: the average annual interest rate is 31%.

“We are forced to sell the paddy at a low price immediately after harvest to repay our loans,” said Dilip Kumar, a 40-year-old farmer from another northern district, Lalmonirhat. “If we wait to sell it, the interest on our loan will go up.”

Irrigation in a paddy field
The high cost of production — ranging from irrigation and labor to fertilizers and pesticides — as well uncompetitive prices mean farmers have no incentive to explore beyond the dominant varieties. Image by Abu Siddique/Mongabay.

Risks of monocrop culture

“If farmers cannot get a fair price for their produce and cannot access finance to meet their [production] needs on time, they will definitely go for varieties that have the best yield,” said Ahsan Uddin Ahmed, a researcher on environment and climate change issues.

He said that makes the predominance of monoculture the fault of the government, as it has failed to address the farmers’ interests by making it feasible for them to explore other rice varieties.

A 2019 study suggested that adopting alternative varieties of rice could help Bangladeshi farmers avoid risks such as pest attacks and low yields in the long run — risks that grow the greater the overdependence on a few varieties.

Repeated monocropping also degrades soil health, which Ahsan Uddin, who is a member of the Green Climate Fund’s Independent Technical Advisory Panel of the Green Climate Fund, also blamed on the government.

“The farmers are not liable for the damage to soil health. It’s the state’s responsibility to ensure availability of technology, finance and cultivable varieties. The government has failed in this regard,” he said.

“The government should introduce a mechanism so that farmers get a fair price for their production,” said  Jibon Krisna Biswas, a former director-general of the BRRI. “Otherwise, they will continue to grow varieties like BRRI-28 and BRRI-29. This is leading to the monocrop culture, which will bring ecological ruin in the long run.”

Banner image: Farmers with freshly harvested paddy. Image by Md Arifur Rahman via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Climate change puts Bangladeshi farmers’ reliance on rice varieties to the test

Citations:

Zohir, S. (2001). Impact of reforms in agricultural input markets on crop sector profitability in Bangladesh. Retrieved from SAPRI Bangladesh website: http://www.saprin.org/bangladesh/research/ban_agri_input.pdf

Bidisha, S. H., Khan, A., Khondker, B. H., & Imran, K. (2015). Returns to agricultural microcredit: Quasi-experimental evidence from Bangladesh. Bangladesh Development Studies38(4), 31-46. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/26538717

Tisdell, C., Alauddin, M., Sarker, M. A., & Kabir, M. A. (2019). Agricultural diversity and sustainability: General features and Bangladeshi illustrations. Sustainability11(21), 6004. doi:10.3390/su11216004

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Agriculture, Agroecology, Biodiversity, Crops, Economics, Economy, Farming, Finance, Food, Food Crisis, Food Industry, Food Prices, food security, Monocultures

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Simonne Stigall

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