Bangladesh has made great strides towards improved food security in recent years. Food grain production has tripled over the last forty years.
Poverty reduction has been impressive, and Bangladesh is one of the countries to have achieved the millennium development goal on hunger reduction, honoured this year in an award from FAO.
One of the factors behind this success is that Bangladesh is a young country – estimates are that half the population is under 25.
The people still mainly live in rural settings – despite trends in urban growth, less than one third of the population is classified as urban. And just under half of the total population is engaged in agriculture.
However, despite these successes, the food system in Bangladesh today is at a turning point.
Demand is ever-rising as the population continues to grow – expected to reach around 200 million by 2030. Under-nutrition – seen in the high percentage of stunting in children – remains a persistent challenge. And the food system faces significant problems from natural resource degradation.
Production is affected by the slow loss of land available (according to a recent SRDI study at around 0.3P%-0.5% per year). Groundwater resources are depleted and expensive to access. Salinity is a growing problem in some areas; drought in others. And the gradual effects of climate change, coupled with extreme weather events, provide a worrying backdrop.
When I visit farmers one of the questions I ask is what do you want your children to be when they grow up? The usual answer is a roll call of the professions – doctor, engineer, lawyer ... or perhaps less ambitiously a range of trades, or even the ready-made garments sector. I then ask, “But none of you want your children to be farmers?”, usually this is followed by a slightly embarrassed silence.
Yet this next generation can be a potent force for modernising agriculture, and addressing the underlying challenges to food security. Young people tend to be more open to new ideas, and new ways of producing crops, livestock or fish.
They are the ones who develop new services, who start businesses, who become traders, who make use of mobile communications technologies and devise new equipment or approaches to solve old problems; and who integrate across production systems to minimise waste, achieve greater energy efficiency and use up by-products.
I say: “it can be,” because a number of factors discourage rural youth from taking on these challenges – and encourage them instead to move to the city, or abroad. These include lack of access to land and resources; lack of rural services; lack of decent rural work; the lack of opportunity to make a living, or develop a business.
Investments in rural areas, including access to infrastructure, credit, technology and skills training, are crucial for local economic development, and to create more and better jobs both in the farm and non-farm sector. Though some of this investment needs to come from the public sector, the private sector also has a major role to play.
From a recent ILO report, “Countries such as China and Viet Nam have shown what can be achieved by investing heavily in agriculture and rural development. In China, productivity growth in agriculture, combined with improved rural infrastructure, is thought to have reduced poverty four times more than growth in industry or services.”
The current Government of Bangladesh scheme of farmers’ cards, and encouragement to open bank accounts to allow direct transfers of funds, avoiding middle men, is a step in the right direction. But landless agricultural labourers and women, who are not considered as primarily “farmers,” need to be brought into such schemes.
Other novel partnerships are needed to develop rural youth employment opportunities, and to add further value to agricultural output. There needs to be investment in training and non-formal education in modern production and processing technologies, but also in book keeping, marketing and finance.
Maybe agriculture needs to find more vocal champions, and become more attractive in the process? If so, it could start in schools. The inclusion of agriculture, food security and nutrition in school curricula can help reinforce positive individual and household messages. School gardens can become an extension of the classroom, where mathematics, biology, basic sciences and nutrition are taught.
Training and certification for skilled farm workers is another key investment. Farmers Field Schools, which test new technologies and encourage adaptive research, are another element to engage the young and more dynamic farmers, technicians and researchers.
In short, rural youth holds the key to long-term food security in Bangladesh. It is up to the policy makers to find the right incentives to realise this potential. One way they can support this is to promote The Modernisation of Agriculture as a national campaign.