Bangladesh is self-sufficient in cereal production, yet millions go hungry. Now the government wants small farmers to grow high yielding varieties of rice alongside other food crops.
'Grow rice? Grow some more,' has been the Bangladesh government's message to farmers until recently.
And farmers have grown more. Even after 2000, when Bangladesh for the first time produced enough rice to feed its huge population, rice production has risen almost every year culminating in a bumper crop in 2003.
But, as with many success stories, there is a catch. Bangladesh remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and many of the farmers who helped make it food self-sufficient cannot be sure of a full bowl of rice for themselves and their families.
About six million small farmers – farming 0.2 to a hectare of land – live in conditions of poverty, vulnerable to losing their crops in floods and their slender profits in price changes.
In Rupshi village, 30 km east of the capital Dhaka, Abdul Muttalib, a 45-year-old contract farmer has just harvested half a tonne of rice from one of the four 0.1 hectare-plots he rents from a local landowner.
He says he will be able to sell it for Taka 3,000 ($50), leaving him a profit of only $8 to show for six months of hard work and investment.
Harunur Rashid, owner of the local rice shop, says most of the locals have had to abandon rice farming altogether in search of more lucrative alternatives in this semi-urbanised district. Contract farmers, who are landless and work for landowners, are the only ones left growing rice.
But it is farmers like Muttalib who turned a chronic food-deficit Bangladesh into a country that is self-sufficient in cereal production. Crop outputs grew from 10 million tonnes in 1970 to 26 million tonnes in 2003 (although the population too nearly doubled from 70 million to 140 million in the same period).
Experts put this agricultural success down to the development of new high yielding varieties of rice and a huge expansion of irrigation.
Now, Bangladesh's latest plan to reduce poverty and boost economic growth – written by the government with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and to be finalised at the end of this year – says the country cannot rely on its amazing rice-growing record to see it through the next decade. Rice production is becoming less profitable because of the rising costs of fertilisers and pesticides.
The plan, a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, says one solution is for the government to help rice farmers grow other food crops, which sell at higher prices – and give the population a more balanced diet.
Suresh Babu, senior research fellow of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute which is working in Bangladesh, said at a March meeting of policy analysts in Dhaka that Bangladesh needs to turn subsistence farmers into commercial farmers.
"The problem of food insecurity will continue to remain unless the purchasing power of the poor can be raised" by growing fruit, vegetables and raising poultry, he said.
While experts and politicians have been talking about diversification, farmers have quietly begun a second farming revolution.
Alamgir Mohiuddin, head of the National Agriculture Sector Review at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, who has covered a third of rural communities in recent travels across the country, is amazed by the changes he has seen.
"In the last four years the picture has completely changed," he says. "We found even marginalised and landless farmers cultivating plots of vegetables and spices. Subsistence farmers have made the move to diversify to spread their risk."
Farmers are still growing rice, but many are following it up with crops of vegetables or spices to sell in the market, Mohiuddin says. Ten years ago farmers would produce a single crop a year – now almost all produce two or three. The question is whether this can end hunger.
Although Bangladesh has grown enough rice to feed its population of 140 million since 2000, the World Food Programme says 30 million people still survive on about 1,800 calories a day – well below the recommended 2,300 calories. Women and children are especially vulnerable – more than 50 per cent of women suffer from chronic energy deficiency and 56 per cent of pre-school children are underweight, according to FAO.
"Unless we can increase our yields there is no way a poor country like Bangladesh can resolve poverty," says Mosharraf Hussain, former professor of economics at Dhaka University and a specialist on rural poverty. He says the success in rice production is not enough. Bangladesh also needs to produce more pulses, oilseeds, milk and fish both to boost farmers' incomes and feed people.
In the 1960s, 55 per cent of households had access to over 2,150 calories. "Now nearly 70 per cent don't have anywhere near that amount, because food availability has not kept up with population growth," he says.
The government has begun to supply seeds, technology and loans for diversification. Mujibur Rahman Sarkar, joint director of the Ministry of Agriculture's Crop Diversification Project, says this does not discourage farmers from growing rice. Under the project, farmers grow other crops on land which they cannot use to grow Boro rice, a plant grown in the dry season between rainy season rice crops.
But Mahiul Haque, director general of the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) which developed the high yielding rice plants which were behind Bangladesh's green revolution, warns that the new trend for diversification should not be taken too far.
"Poor people do not bother about curry. They can take a bowl of rice with salt, chilli and onion. We should rather genetically improve rice quality to help meet micro-nutrient deficiencies of poor people."
M M Akash, professor of economics of Dhaka University, also has a word of caution. He says the government should strengthen crop diversification only after ensuring a three per cent annual growth in rice output to meet the needs of the growing population.
"We have to go for crop diversification. The point is, we cannot do this at the cost of rice output. At the same time we cannot live by eating only rice. We should avoid either of the two extremes."
Mostafa Kamal Majumder is Executive Editor of The New Nation newspaper in Dhaka.