At a time when soaring prices of fuel-oil and fertilisers are hindering cultivation prospects, Conservation agriculture (CA), the farming approach of managing agro-ecosystems for improved productivity, ushers new hope for the country's agriculture sector.
Conservation farming is an approach that adopts a set of practices designed to preserve soil properties through minimum soil management processes; conserve the soil, water and soil moisture; and enhance fertiliser and seed use saving fuel-oil, time and money.
A recent study, conducted in South East Asia by Bihar Agricultural University, on this farming method, says adopting the method will save fuel use by 46-62%, labour need by 26-42% as well as reduce irrigation water requirement by 8-17% and carbon dioxide emissions by 11-16%.
The study also observed 5-10% increase in productivity and 16-56% increase in farmers' income.
According to agronomists, after harvesting previous crops, stems or excess crop stubble should be left in 30% of crops on the land. Before planting crops in such lands, weeds should be cleared through proper use of herbicides at approved levels. Later, the selected part of the land needs to be made ready for seeding through little or no tillage using easily available equipment.
This method, due to little or no tillage, allows the straws to cover the soil and prevent water evaporation. It also helps conserve water when it rains and prevents soil erosion. The reduction of water and air flow on the land makes the soil surface very soft, increasing soil fertility. This method reduces cultivation work on the land, which also stands ready for both seeding and the use of fertilisers.
Across all seasons in Bangladesh, cultivation of vegetables and all kinds of crops including rice, wheat and maize are done using the conventional tillage (CT) farming method, according to a study.
The farming approach requires a field to be ploughed several times to produce one crop. More water is needed for this method, using which only one crop can be cultivated in a season. The process leads to increased soil erosion and requires more fuel cost. It also entails added labour for the farmers all through the farming process. Besides, processes involved in the method cause the emission of carbon dioxide, which is harmful to the environment.
In the aftermath of the recent fuel price hike, agro-economists have opined that it is possible to make the country's agriculture sector affordable by adopting the Conservation agriculture method.
Recent data from Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC) says, there are some 16 lakh irrigation machines in the country. About 70% of them are diesel powered while the rest are electric powered. Apart from irrigation, diesel is also used in other agricultural works. A total of approximately 11 lakh tonne diesel is required in the agricultural sector throughout the year and irrigation alone requires 6-7 lakh tonne diesel.
According to information, recently shared by the Minister of State for Power, Energy and Mineral Resources Nasrul Hamid, there are more than 4,64 lakh existing irrigation connections under the six electricity distribution companies. It will require 2,228.502 MW of electricity if all irrigation connections go active at the same time.
Agro-economist MA Sattar, Professor Emeritus at Bangladesh Agricultural University, told The Business Standard that farmers are now adopting conventional tillage farming in various areas including coastal areas.
He added that now the neighbouring country India is giving importance to the CA farming method which the country is using on about 30 lakh hectares of land.
"Some 43% of the total agriculture cost is spent on irrigation. At a time like this, Conservation agriculture is the only way for the agriculture sector to overcome the crisis and it can save the farmers," said Professor Sattar.
Pointing out that the farming method is yet to be that well-known in Bangladesh, he said that the government should take strong initiatives for this.
"If it is possible to reduce fuel expenses in the agriculture sector, it will benefit both the farmers and the country," he added.
Outlook of CA in Bangladesh
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) recently released the research report – "Adapted Conservation Agriculture Practices Can Increase Energy Productivity and Lower Yield-Scaled Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Coastal Bangladesh" – which shows promising prospects.
The CIMMYT's research, which was carried out for three years in Khulna's Batiaghata, Patuakhali's Kalapara and Barishal's Babuganj upazilas, was the first in the country on the application of this farming method.
"From the three years of researcher-designed but farmer managed rice-maize rotational trials comparing different tillage and crop establishment methods, we observed that CA resulted in higher cropping (rice-maize) systems-level yields (by 15- 18%), lower manual labour requirements (by 26-40%), and lower total production and tillage and crop establishment costs (by 1-12and 33-55% respectively)," read the report.
Md Sayedul Islam, secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture said, "The members of the Agriculture Department are working on this. Meanwhile, some international organisations are working on it in Bangladesh. We will slowly move towards this method."
He further said, "While the benefits of this method are many, it needs a long-term action plan. We are thinking about that."
AFM Hayatullah, chairman of BADC, said, "Popularising Conservation agriculture, which is a very useful method, requires support from both the government's policy-making level and the international level."