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Interaction between agriculture, nutrition, and food science in Bangladesh

A.K. Kaul. Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, Joydebpur, Dacca, Bangladesh

Distribution and preservation
Bangladesh: important statistics on agriculture (1978/79)


The National Food Policy of Bangladesh is a result of the interaction of many discrete, uncoordinated, often inconsistent, policies. In great measure it involves agricultural production policy with little emphasis on distribution and consumption. Agriculture that accounts for 55 per cent of the gross national product (GNP), 85 per cent of all employment and 80 per cent of the export earnings, is susceptible to frequent natural disasters. More than 70 per cent of population, mostly landless or marginal farmers, suffer from second and third degree malnutrition.

The Second Five Year Plan (SFYP), which was launched in 1979/80, seeks rapid growth of agricultural production and productivity. The agricultural sector is to bear the burden of providing nutritional needs, generating employment, and supplying exports. Food production is to increase by more than 50 per cent in the coming five years through the application of an interdisciplinary integrated approach. The National Agricultural Researched system is being strengthened under the control of the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council. Projections for increased production (in percentage) are as follows: rice, 39; wheat, 206; oilseeds, 135; pulses, 100; tubers, 25; and fisheries, 464.

Between the time of the two Nutrition Surveys conducted in Bangladesh in 1962- 1964 and 1975-1976, the per capita availability of all the food items decreased. Maximum decrease (in percentage) took place in the availability of fats and oils (- 42), pulses (- 15), animal products ( - 30 - 40), and fruits (- 50). Available calcium, vitamin A, riboflavin, and vitamin C are below recommended levels.

While the production targets set in the SFYP are attainable with the existing technology, the question of equitable distribution of food in the population calls for drastic changes in land tenure policy so that producers have control over the resources and they are able to earn enough to afford balanced food for their families. Land tenure being a socio-economic problem, determined by political and other factors that are beyond the realm of agricultural and food scientists, only practical aspects of what can be done within the existing framework of farming system are discussed. An integrated "crop-livestock-energy family farm" concept is outlined. This experiment has been designed to stimulate a 0.73 hectare farm on which energy and nitrogen would be kept in a positive balance through careful recycling and crop rotation. It has been estimated that such a model farm can produce enough balanced food for a family of seven adult equivalents.

Very little work has been done in Bangladesh to assess the field and post-harvest losses. The food scientists have not yet paid adequate attention to the rural needs. However, the data available suggest that prevention of post-harvest losses should not be treated as a third option of food policy. On the contrary, technical changes occurring in threshing and milling may actually increase food losses that are at present estimated at 5-7 per cent. Pulses are most vulnerable to insects while rice quality is affected by aflatoxins of Aspergillus flavus origin. High incidence of parasitism and infection affects the absorption and assimilation of food thereby exaggerating the malnutrition.

Improving the nutritional status of the Bangalee population does not merely involve increasing the production through harvesting of more food in less time and space but calls for perfection of a production mechanism that gives opportunity to the producers to consume the food they have produced and educating them in methods that would avoid losses at all levels.


The national food policy of Bangladesh, like those of other developing countries, is the result of the interaction of many discrete, uncoordinated, often inconsistent policies. In great measure it involves agricultural policy that is concerned primarily with the production of food. Food distribution and consumption, two equally important facets of food policy, are dealt with independently on a lower key. In recent years, continued population pressure, rising levels of rural underemployment and unemployment, less-than-expected increases in food, output, rising costs of energy and fertilizer, and deepening concerns about nutritional adequacy and availability of food supplies, have pointed towards the need for the integration of policies on agricultural production, food distribution, and household consumption. It is being increasingly realized that food policy should encompass a wide array of policies and programmes not solely focused on food. These are employment, income distribution, population growth, health, inflation, land tenure, trade, marketing, etc. Agricultural sector analysts are aware of the crucial importance of these interfaces. Yet it has been difficult to bring them into play to improve the food production and distribution systems in the country.

This review looks at various aspects of food production, and its distribution and consumption in Bangladesh with particular reference to nutritional needs and deficits. An attempt has been made to identify interfaces, or the lack thereof, and to analyse whether the Bangalee food problem is solvable in the near future.


Agriculture and the National Economy

Agriculture is the most important component in the Bangalee economy. It accounts for 55 per cent of the GNP, 85 per cent of all employment and 80 per cent of export earnings. However, agriculture being most vulnerable to natural disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts, the rate of national growth may vary from 1 to 8 per cent per annum. Normally one-third of the 9.11 million hectares of cultivated land remains under water during the monsoon (see data on page 340). Over the centuries the delta has shifted east, and the western areas have increasingly become drought-prone. There are about six agro-ecological zones in the country based upon monsoon flooding and topography; the hill tracts and coastal zones cover 1.7 million and 1 million hectares respectively, the rest being flat alluvial land. Despite a cropping intensity of over 150 per cent and an overall increase of about 10 per cent in agricultural production in the past ten years, Bangladesh has remained a food deficit area for 20 years. Rice yields are only about one-third of those of Japan. Nearly 2 million tonnes of food grain are being imported every year. Even so, malnutrition of the second and third degree has grown from 60 per cent of the population in 1965 to 72.8 per cent in 1978 (Bangladesh 1979a and 1980a).


Second Five Year Plan and the Strategy for Production

The Second Five Year Plan (SFYP) for the period 1979/80 to 1984/85 has been launched. It seeks rapid growth in agricultural production and productivity. The reduction of rural poverty being the dominant theme, the agricultural sector is to bear the burden of providing nutritional needs, generating employment, and supplying exports (Bangladesh 1980b).

TABLE 1. Food-grain Production in Bangladesh in the Second Five Year Plan (SFYP)

Commodity 1979/80 1984/85
Area (000 hectares) Production (000 tonnes) Area (000 hectares) Production (000 tonnes)
Aus 3,156 3,103 (23%) 3,239 4,830 (24%)
Aman 5.773 7,422 (55%) 5,668 9,550 (48%)
Boro 1,094 2,239 (16%) 1,214 3,400 (17%)
Total 10,023 12,764 (94%) 10,121 17,780 (89%)
Wheat 364 716(5%) 1,012 2,250(11%)
Coarse grain 89 59 (-) 61 75 (-)
TOTAL 10,476 13,539 (100%) 11,194 20,105 (100%)

Source: Bangladesh 1980c p. XII-24.

TABLE 2. Selected Major Physical Targets in Food Commodities in Second Five Year Plan (SFYP) (in million tonnes)a

Item 1979/80
(end of the SFYP)
Rice (high-yielding varieties) 12.8 17.8 39
Wheat 0.7 2.2 206
Potato 1.6 2.0 25
Oilseeds 0.3 0.6 135
Pulses 0.2 0.4 100
Sugar-cane 6.7 7.8 17
Milk and milk products 1.5 1.6 7
Meat 0.3 0.4 22
Eggs 4.7 5.1 8
Fisheries 0.6 3.0 464

a. Except for eggs (in millions)
Source: Bangladesh. p. XII-7.

The agricultural sector is expected to achieve employment for 23 million out of 30 million job seekers by 1984/85. Increase in gainful rural employment being considered an essential goal of the SFYP, emphasis is placed on labour-intensive methods of farm improvement and water management. Food production is to be increased from a bench-mark level of 13.5 million tonnes in 1979/80 to just over 20 million tonnes in 1984/85. The increase is to come from a higher cropping index and higher yields. Major expansion is planned in the wheat area. Other areas recognized for priority attention are: Substantial increase in oilseeds (135 per cent), pulses (100 per cent), fish (464.1.) and poultry (8 per cent) to achieve a better balanced diet,

Institutional changes and appropriate policy measures relating to supply of inputs, services, credit, extension services, price support, and marketing facilities, integration of food and agricultural policies, Doubling of net irrigation coverage from 1.50 to 2.91 hectares. Increase of cropping intensity along with irrigation. More attention to minor irrigation schemes. Distinction between the strategies for rain-fed and irrigated areas,

Doubling of fertilizer use, both inorganic and organic, to increase areas under high yielding varieties of rice and wheat. Pricing, buffer stocks, and storage. Planning for a minimum grain storage capacity of 4 million tonnes by 1984/85.


Production Technology and Agricultural Research

Agricultural research in Bangladesh has not received adequate attention in the past. Research stations and facilities were not developed, staff training has lagged, scientists have been isolated from relevant national and international research programmes and the responsibility of agricultural research has rested with several different ministries and agencies, co-ordination being weak or absent (Hesser 1974). A National Agricultural Research Plan was prepared in 1979 (Bangladesh 1979b) to help consolidate and lay down priorities for research strategy, develop an adequate manpower base, provide linkages, and identify specific research goals in each sector of agricultural research.

In the SFYP, high priority has been given to the breeding and cultivation of high-yielding varieties of major crop plants. Already satisfactory progress has been made in rice, wheat, pulses, and oilseeds. Disease and pest management is to receive due attention since it has been estimated that crops worth US$350 million are lost to pests annually. Detailed programmes have been drawn on wheat rust control, integrated pest management, on-farm trials, farming systems research, socio-economics studies, livestock improvement, fisheries development, silviculture, agricultural engineering, and post-harvest technology. In the last three years much attention has been given to institution building and strengthening of the national agricultural research system (Bangladesh 1980a). The Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council has been established to plan, integrate, co-ordinate, and monitor all agricultural research in Bangladesh. A network of regional substations for research have been put into effective operation. An on-farm testing service has been launched to conduct trials in farmers' fields. In crops like pulses and wheat, inter-institutional and interdisciplinary research has been initiated. Communication and the transfer of technology is to receive due attention. Above all, manpower development through strengthening of national and international training facilities is emphasized. Several programme areas of applied nutrition have been recognized in the National Agricultural Research Plan. Considering balanced minimum nutritional needs and feasible production targets, estimates made by the author are compared in table 3 with the SFYP targets and those computed on the basis of minimum nutritional needs. The productivity of pulses, oilseeds, and fisheries can easily be increased twofold to threefold through intensive cropping strategy with already known agro-technology.

TABLE 3. Estimates of Food Requirements in 1985 (in million tonnes)

Commodity Based on minimum nutritional need Projected in the SFYP Computed by Author
Cereals 14.3 20.0 18.0
Tuber crops 2.4 2.2 1.6
Oilseeds 1.6 0.6 1.2
Pulses 1.6 0.4 2.0
Sugar-cane 10 0 10.0 7.8
Milk and its products 0 6 1.6 1.0
Meat - 0.4 1.7
Fish 0.6 3.0
Egg (number) - 5.1 -
Vegetables and fruits 7.9 5.5 7 5

It should be emphasized here that an increased food supply will not ipso facto solve the problems of undernutrition and malnutrition. The object of planning must be to provide a food supply that is nutritionally and physiologically adequate, available in sufficient quantities, and equitably distributed at affordable prices given country income conditions.


Integrated "Crop-Livestock-Energy" Family Farm - An Experiment

Traditional farming in Bangladesh can be characterized as being an open ended-low productivity-low input system which is in precarious negative nitrogen and energy balance. Above all, it is too strained to provide balanced nutrition to the human population and farm animals. Perfection of a closed farming system in which humans, animals, and crops are mutually supporting has been discussed (Bolin and Arrhenius 1977; Kaul 1977; Bangladesh Agricultural University 1981; Nielsen and Preston 1981).

A pilot project on "integrated crop-livestock-energy model family farm" has recently been initiated at the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (see FIG. 1. Integrated Crop-Livestock-Energy Model and FIG. 2. Experimental Layout of an Integrated Farming Unit. Total area 7,050 m2, or 1.8 acres (1.2 cropped area + 0.6 for home, pond, vegetables, storage, animal shed, digester, etc.). Boundary to be planted with ipil ipil or pigeon-pea). This project, which will initially be tested and monitored for two years on the campus of the Institute, is to represent a marginal holding of 0.73 hectares. The purpose is to simulate a high-productivity, predominantly closed system with a self-sustaining farming family of ten members (seven adults equivalent) besides cattle, poultry, ducks, and fish culture to enable recycling of all organic wastes and nitrogen within the holding itself. Nitrogen balance in the soil will be further boosted by the incorporation of legumes and azolla in the cropping rotations. The total area of about 7,000 m2 will be divided equally into six blocks: four for cropping and two to accommodate housing, working area, storage, a trench-type digester, a fish pond, and a water reservoir. The digester, costing only US$100, will have the capacity to turn over 7 kg of the dry matter equivalent of cow dung and produce 3.8 m3 of biogas per day. A fence of ipil-ipil (Lencaena gluaca), or pigeon-pea (Cajanus cajan) around the farm is estimated to produce 700 kg dry matter (firewood) and 27 kg nitrogen equivalent of debris. With a capital investment of US$3,700 (excluding the cost of land), the system is estimated to generate an income of US$1,300 annually.

Alternately it is designed to be capable of sustaining a family of 10 members, with the possibility of sparing food for another 10 people and enough proteins to balance the food of 40 people. The first phase of this experiment is in progress. The level of interest so far generated suggests that a major programme of experimental and teaching work in this area might soon be forthcoming. It is intended to monitor nitrogen and energy balance in detail. Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute has finished one year of experimentation on a project entitled "Living on an Acre. " In 1980, a family of two adults and three children was allotted one acre of land at the Institute site. Various inputs were provided. The data obtained so far suggest that for such an experiment the site should be chosen away from the Institute (Amin et al. 1981).

Distribution and preservation

Distribution as a Function of Income and Land Occupancy

Lappé and Collins (1978) have stated that even now, with resources grossly under-used, Bangladesh grows enough in grain alone to provide everyone in the country with at least 2,600 calories a day. Yet according to nutrition surveys (United States 1966; Anon. 1978) over half the families in Bangladesh consume less than 1,500 calories per person per day. More than two-thirds of the population suffer from protein and vitamin deficiencies. Maldistribution is directly associated with unemployment, a consequence of the faulty land tenure system. Any discussion on the food production and consumption interface will be incomplete without looking into the matter of land ownership.

In 1977 an AID-commissioned study found that about 90 per cent of all land in Bangladesh is worked in whole or in part by share-croppers and labourers (Jannuzi and Peach 1977). Trapped in a vicious circle of tenant farming, these people must pay for all the agricultural inputs and still give over half their harvest to the landlords who have become money-lender merchants, speculating in food grains (Lappé and Collins 1978). The landless (now 54 per cent of the population and increasing by 2-3 per cent annually) are particularly vulnerable to shortfalls in production and constitute the bulk of the nutritionally disadvantaged. Despite very favourable conditions for agriculture, the current rice yields of Bangladesh are only half of the world average, and a mere one-sixth of what has been demonstrated to be possible in the country. Thus food potential is nowhere near being realized, not through lack of resources but because of inequalities in control over the country's production resources. There are no incentives for share-croppers and labourers to build and maintain drainage, irrigation, communication, and other key facilities when such investment would primarily benefit the landowners. The share-cropper is concerned with what little land he owns exclusively, and the landless labourer only with his wages. Most of the ponds and canals are silted, and absentee landlords, share-croppers, and the landless have little interest in excavating them. Village-wide co-operative work for community benefit is not attractive when poor people are forced to compete with each other for sheer survival. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) considers the inland fisheries resources of Bangladesh to be the richest in the world, yet fishermen, being highly exploited hired hands, have no ambition to improve their skills (FAO 1973). Lappé and Collins (1978) have concluded that the key obstacle to development for the people of Bangladesh is that power is present in the hands of a few, preventing the majority from realizing their common interest and the strength of their unified effort. They endorse the conclusion reached in 1975 in a FAO report (FAO 1975): "A policy of really drastic land redistribution might promote both production and equity." Co-operative farming and fishing could ensure optimum use of natural resources.


Post-harvest Losses and Related Research

Very little work has so far been performed in Bangladesh to assess the extent of post-harvest losses in handling, processing, storage, and distribution of food grains (Lockwood 1975; Bangladesh 1980c). Research attention needs to be given to: (a) developing suitable designs and structures for both bulk and village-level storage; (b) milling processes, with particular emphasis on pre- and post-parboiling treatment of rice; (c) grading, and institution of grading standards; and (d) assessment of all types of biological, physical, and biochemical losses during storage. It may, however, be pointed out that prevention of post-harvest losses should not be treated as an important option of food policy, since such losses may not exceed 5-7 per cent and there is not much opportunity besides to prevent farm-level losses. On the contrary, technical changes occurring in threshing and milling may actually increase food losses (Greely 1980). Similarly, it has been concluded that the present emphasis on a small-scale grain drying apparatus is misplaced because such driers would be beyond the reach of subsistence farmers (Greely and Rahman 1980).

Losses in rice at various stages after field harvest of paddy have been estimated to be as follows (Fazlul Huq 1980): transportation, 1 per cent; stacking and threshing, 2-3 per cent; winnowing-drying-storage-soaking and parboiling-drying-dehusking-polishing, 2-4 per cent; and storage-washing-cooking, 1 per cent.

Field and post-harvest losses in Bangladesh due to rodents have been estimated (Hopf 1973). Field losses in cereals (consolidated) are 2-5 per cent, in sugar-cane, 15 20 per cent, and in vegetables, 5-10 per cent. Stored grain losses are placed at 2-2.5 per cent.

In 1979, a loss of 525,000 tons of rice and wheat, valued at US$141,010,000 was ascribed to rodents (Poché personal communication 1979).

Since more than 80 per cent of the grain produced is consumed at village level itself, farm-level storage must receive greater research emphasis. A range of traditional storage methods are used and good scope exists for improvement. Parboiling of rice is most popular; only 5-10 per cent of grain goes for commercial milling. "Dheki," the traditional mill, is gradually being replaced by the Engelberg-type hulier mill, and this could threaten the livelihood of female labour (Shah Noor 1980).

A study conducted by Joardar et al. (1980) on nearly 1,200 samples of stored rice, both parboiled and milled, identified Aspergillus flavus and A. niger as the most prevalent fungi. Aflatoxin levels of A. flavus-infested samples were considered serious in 4 per cent of the cases studied.

Azim (1980) reported insect losses to vary from 3-15 per cent in stored grains, depending on the commodity and the container used for storage. Pulses and maize had incurred more than 20 per cent losses in four months of storage. Callosobruchus chinensis L. and Sitophillus oryzae L. were found to be most damaging of all stored pests in pulses and cereals, respectively. Treatment of grain with dried and powdered leaves of "neem" (Azadirachta indica) and "nishinda" (Vitex nagundo) reduced losses.


Food Science and Technology

Research and development in the field of food science and technology in Bangladesh is confined to the Division of Food Science and Technology (FST) at the Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR). This laboratory is administered by the Ministry of Science and Technology and, as such, has little direct working contact with various agricultural research institutes in the country. Its mandate does not directly address itself to the problems of nutrition. Work on field-level post-harvest technology has recently been initiated. Ever since its establishment in 1965, the Food Science and Technology Division has developed several processes. Nine of the processes have been leased out for commercial exploitation and three industries have been established with the know-how provided by the BCSIR.

The following major activities are under way (Anon. 1978):
Fish: preservation and processing.
Eggs: preservation.
Rice: assessment of post-harvest losses and parboiling.
Soybean: processing and utilization.

Starch manufacture from local ingredients. Formulation of nutritive foods from locally available ingredients. Oil extraction from various conventional and unconventional sources. Preservation technology for fruits, vegetables and potatoes. Formulation of poultry and cattle feeds. Production of organic chemicals out of agricultural wastes. Solar drying techniques.

Since 1968, 28 patents in the following fields have been released by the BCSIR: food preservation, 3; soybean preparation, 5; food processing, 9; feeds, 4; and organic chemicals, 7.

Moreover, the BCSIR renders analytical services for quality control to a good number of industrial clients, government organizations, and agencies. It is however apparent that, while the FST Division has benefited the urban food industry a great deal, the rural bias is limited. Out of the 39 processes listed as ready for release, no more than 11 could be considered to be of any direct benefit to rural clients. Recently a project has been taken up for the survey and surveillance of milling and storage losses of pulses. The following important areas of research and development in the rural agro-industry deserve the attention of the BSCIR:

Assessment of post-harvest losses in cereals, legumes, oilseeds, fruits, and vegetables in the rural areas.
Survey of traditional methods of storage of grain and fruit crops, and recommendation of the most effective ones for adaptation.
Improvement in traditional solar drying methods.
Designing of low-cost fish preservation and transport techniques.
Research on the most simple and inexpensive techniques of increasing the shelf-life of fruits and vegetables.
Rapid parboiling and drying methods for rice.
Simple inexpensive methods for detoxifying lathyrus (Khesari).
Designing of economic and effective small-scale milling techniques for pulses.
Finding use for various agro-wastes.

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