Crop Diversification

With rice occupying almost 75 percent of the cropped area, followed by wheat which occupies approximately 4 percent and jute which occupies approximately 3 percent, less than 20 percent of the cropped area is devoted to a range of other crops. It appears that the benefits of crop diversification in the country are well known and have been recognized for a long time. However, all efforts seem to have been consumed by the domination of rice production and, as a result, the area under non-cereal crops has continued to diminish. The government has now recognized the urgent need for agricultural diversification, and a shift towards this end is beginning to take place, although - some would argue - at an unprogressive pace.

There are several immediate reasons why the focus of agricultural growth should incorporate more than the emphasis on food grain production alone and include several non-rice crops such as maize, pulses, oilseeds, potatoes and other vegetables as well as poultry, livestock and even sericulture production:

1) Bangladesh's serious nutrition predicament needs immediate attention. While the diet of the average Bangladeshi meets carbohydrate requirements, it is grossly deficient in proteins, vitamins and minerals.

2) Enlarging the cropping possibilities for Bangladeshi farmers will enable them to allocate their productive resources optimally and maximize their income. There are many opportunities to diversify farm products and by-products in support of agro-industries.

3) As already mentioned, the current cropping system, with its overdependence on rice production throughout the year, is detrimental to soil fertility. It also makes the crops easily susceptible to pest attacks. Crop diversification can help maintain a better soil structure for long-term sustainability.

4) A good proportion of the crops that are currently imported could be substituted through domestic production. Wheat is such an example: while the issue of taste was a constraint to increased wheat production and consumption in the mid-1970s, wheat has gradually become part of the rural diet. Not only does it require less irrigation than rice (see: crop water requirements), making it ultimately less costly to produce, but it is also far less damaging to the environment. On the other hand, climatologically constraints limit prospects for increasing wheat yields significantly.

6) With the significant decline in jute production, together with the limited opportunities and intense overseas competition for rice exports, diversification is essential for agriculture to break into export markets and continue to make a significant contribution to GDP.

There are some obvious obstacles to agricultural diversification which need to be addressed. The development of modern technology for rice and wheat has impeded the development of seeds for other crops and reduced the competitiveness of pulses and oilseeds, which are important sources of protein for the poor.

Additional research is needed to develop suitable HYVs and to make them competitive with modern varieties of rice and wheat. There is also an inherent difficulty associated with intercrop conflicts arising from competition for limited land area. Potatoes, vegetables, bananas, onions and spices are all easily produced in Bangladesh. However, up to now, storage and transport infrastructures have not been substantive enough to inspire the adoption of these crops on a large scale. Farmers have been discouraged by the high price risks associated with the marketing of these crops. Moreover, there has been inadequate extension of on-farm water management technology for non-rice crops. For a crop diversification program to be successful, it will be necessary to create effective demand for the output through price support policies, education and consumer motivation and by ensuring a viable market with appropriate import and export policies.