At the end of 2018, the government has adopted the New Agriculture Policy (NAP) by revising the NAP of 2013. As mentioned in the document, the main goal of the new policy is attaining safe, profitable and sustainable food and nutrition security. If the government’s current approach of revising/updating agriculture policy continues, this policy is likely to be revised again five years later in 2023, when the moment will arrive for Bangladesh to enter the club of middle-income countries. However, there are instances when some countries (Thailand, for example) graduated to middle-income country but did not pay adequate attention to agricultural development process. This neglect of the agriculture sector came at a cost. A significant number of farming families still remain poor and live below poverty line which is seen as an obstacle to graduating to high-income group of countries.
For these countries, it is now increasingly difficult to move these farming families out of poverty trap. This situation arose because of structural transformation that the agriculture sector driven by a period of sustained economic growth was not properly understood to draw appropriate lessons for future policy formulation. In view of that, issues related to agricultural transformation need to be addressed adequately, appropriately and timely so that experiences of Thailand and other countries could be avoided. Agriculture sector in many countries is transforming under the weight of global as well national policy changes, natural changes including climate change. But the pace of change, modes of transformation and the starting points are vastly different for different countries.In Asian countries including Bangladesh, structural changes in agriculture can be grouped into four broad categories: diversification, mechanisation, precision production and farm size. Furthermore, it is technology which has played in the past and will continue playing crucial role in furthering these four inter-related groups. There may be sub-groups in the four groups which may vary from country to country and also large diversities within each group/sub-groups may exist at the country level. Therefore, these issues need to be adequately understood by collecting and analysing information and data from grassroots levels prior to making any policy-related decision and strategy.
In this context, it is important to emphasise that Bangladesh, prior to its entry into the ranks of middle-income countries, needs a vision of “New” agriculture to address concurrently both agricultural developments and raising farmers’ incomes. In the existing system, agriculture sector is performing well but it is equally true upward mobility of the farming communities has become restricted, which means poor farmers are becoming poorer. This is not what the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheik Mujibur Rahman dreamt about the country’s farming communities.
The production part of agriculture falls under the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA). But new agriculture encompasses global competition, industrialisation, product specification, and supply chain. The major challenge that needs urgent policy attention is how to ensure greater and direct participation of marginal and small farmers in the supply chain including the market.
Needless to say, development of NAP is a positive step. Those who were involved directly or indirectly in its preparation did an excellent job but collecting authentic information and data from the grassroots levels in a rapidly changing agricultural production system was not an easy task. It was reportedly developed by collecting information from concerned agencies in a written form and Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (BARC) was given the responsibility to compile all gathered information and finalise the document through organising different workshops at different levels.
If one goes through the entire policy document which is quite voluminous, the first impression one gets is that it is a long list of wishes of individual agencies to access current as well as futuristic technologies and approaches to advance their respective research/extension agenda. As such the document may be considered as the current status of crop agriculture development in the country but hardly has it qualified for a policy.
At the time the country is looking forward with a greater confidence to elevate itself to the rank of middle-income countries, the preparation of the NAP should have been based on a more informed basis. This could have been done by collecting authentic information and data on rapidly changing production scenario at the farm level. As we all know, a policy developed without grassroots level information would not be possible to implement successfully. What is more important, development of agriculture by increasing production and productivity of crops should not be the only priority areas. What is equally important is to ensure farmers’ incomes are rising and their welfare is enhanced. In order to fulfil Bangabandhu’s dream of an equitable society, both these aspects of farm production should go hand in hand and should not be treated in isolation. Any other option will lead to perpetuating the status of smallholder farmers as poor even when Bangladesh would have become a middle-income country. There is no scope to ignore this issue further in developing a policy document to move faster.My suggestion to the new government will be to conduct Agricultural Sector Review (ASR) by covering all sub-sectors (crop, livestock, fisheries, forestry, and others) in order to make current NAP more perfect, functional and implementable. Major ASR was conducted in 1989 and 2006 under the technical supervision of FAO and financed by UNDP. Bangladesh agriculture has been changing dramatically mainly during the last two tenures of the current government. Developing a national policy without having an informed basis may be counterproductive. The early it can be done, the better it would be for farmers and the entire nation.
The writer is the ex-Senior Technical Officer, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)