Reducing the agricultural component in the 2018-19 budget to merely 5.7 per cent can hopefully be seen as a temporary setback. Rabindranath Tagore's 'Sonar Bangla' can be ever-resplendent because of its agricultural endowments, but to know how requires reversing the paltry budget allocation.
For a start, by mid-century, our population will be approaching, if not crossing, 200 million, that too at a time of climate-change erosion when the landmass will be diminishing. Not only will we need more food to keep the population above water, but if our income growth-rate pattern persists (that is, climbing up the middle-income ladder), we will be also diversifying what we eat while also boosting per capita intake. That will automatically weigh down our foreign exchange reserves even more. In this century alone, we have had to quintuple our imports of basics (rice and wheat), from 1.5 billion tons to 5.9 tons, with this fiscal year's figure likely to almost double that to over 9.6 (M.A. Taslim, Financial Express, June 5, 2018, p.4).
This is a remarkable statistic for a country where rice production has expanded by more than 50 per cent in this century alone, that is, far faster than the population growth-rate; and with the wheat production growth-rate only slightly behind, we have the propensity to jack up the output with a little extra effort. Since the bottom-line remains to just stay afloat of where we currently are, we cannot but think outside the box to get out of this potentially expanding trap. Biotechnological explorations, for example, could be undertaken to dampen the expanding food deficit. Since this requires more budgetary investments in agricultural research institutes and universities scattered across the country rather than concentrating them in a few urban locations, agriculture spending cannot simply be wished away, in economically upward-mobile countries.
Alongside is a demographic demon. Population will grow, but more in urban areas than rural, if keeping the current metropolitan-flow growth-rate persists. What this will mean in the countryside is a smaller and aging population: few newly-born children are likely to remain in rural homes, if current patterns are any guide, or carve a career or earn an income in the countryside. That will translate into more expensive farming, fishing, horticulture, and every other industry that can be coaxed out of agriculture, simply because of the limitations of age upon the labour expended. Here, too, adaptive biotechnological tools can help, as they already are in sections of the country.
What we are witnessing is a metropolitan outflow of the well-to-do into the countryside, largely as an escape from city congestion or to build a cottage-industry version of ready-made garment (RMG) factory, or even a full-blown RMG-type of a factory, given the city's intention to evict them. This may not be enough to make a dent in the national economy, but preliminary observations suggest wherever there is adequate transportation infrastructure, those rural forays may be turning into small-scale business enterprises, if not recreational (tourist spots), RMG-type industries, or even farm-related industrial outfits.
What the extra budget allocation could encourage is the type of farm-related or bio-technologically driven investments that can help boost the still-large traditional farming methods and tools. Of course, we do not expect overnight results, but through tax incentives for farm production and resort to bio-technological inputs, we might see a trickle of an increase turn into a flood. Not that our food imports or dependency will automatically disappear, but the deficits can be drastically reduced.
Added to that would be inventive cultivation types. As the major rivers flowing into the country get diverted before they enter the country, or when monsoon rain ends up leaving a persistent flood, we need to explore new types of cultivation, for example, water-resistant seasonal crops upon embankments during summer. Temperature increments that threaten coastal embankments also open up new land at higher altitudes for cultivation. We need to push agriculture farther into the hills through hybrid crops, if not for food, then to pre-empt mud-slides.
Alternately we may explore food substitution. A group of international scientists under Columbia University's Kyle Davis recommended to India to shift from rice and wheat to maize, finger millet, pearl millet, and sorghum. This would not only be more environmentally friendly, but also reduce food deficits (John Gabbatis, "India must ditch rice to feed growing population, scientists warn," Independent, July 05, 2018). They found rice to be 'the least water-efficient cereal' and wheat was 'driving water loss due to its high irrigation demands'. Although India's terrain is diverse enough to permit crop shifts, we in Bangladesh might examine what such a shift might mean to both cultivation and our diet, or explore similar substitutes to rice and wheat.
Ultimately we need to bring agriculture into the cities. Metropolitans will be sprawling in every direction, but through roof-top cultivation is not new, it has not been exploited to the fullest. Incentives to produce even self-sufficient crops on the roof, individually or collectively, only means chopping off more market demands. Done on a consistent basis, this alone could reduce imports to manageable levels, while the promotion of greenhouses in parks and other common locations would add to that chip-by-chip food import reduction.
Opportunities like these ably expose the need for us to constantly reinvent the proverbial wheel. Denmark and the Netherlands exemplify what can be done, and how, with what they have done, to become farming powerhouses. From agriculture to poultry, even sericulture, we are not lost for opportunities, windows, or avenues. We just need to rethink, reapply, and revitalise our farming instincts and food plates.
There is a lot more gold out there, even in jute cultivation in an age of renewable production that should get us all excited for the Tagore vision to thrive.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent