Naogaon farmer Mokabbar Ali used to get 4-6 maunds of paddy per bigha of land before 1971. His yields after the country's independence had been growing slowly as seeds of many hybrid varieties were available even in the remote rural area.
In 2015, Mokabbar purchased seeds from the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC) that pushed his paddy yield to 28 maunds (one maund is around 37kg) per bigha.
"Government seeds are very exceptional," said the 70-year-old farmer – who is quite unaware of the reasons behind the agri-magic that changed the farming landscape over the past 50 years.
The magic comprises agri-inventions such as high-yielding crop varieties and efficient farm machinery, enabling farmers like Mokabbar to produce paddy four times higher than what they used to grow 50 years ago.
And, the quadrupled paddy production appears to be the befitting reply to the pessimistic forecast about Bangladesh by the international communities in 1973.
Just two years after Bangladesh's independence, the invention of the BR-3 paddy variety at the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) marked the beginning of the rice revolution. Farmers eagerly embraced the paddy to replace their typical seasonal Aush, Aman and Boro varieties.
According to researchers, BR-3 alone raised paddy production to 1.40 crore tonnes from 1 crore tonnes. Then came BR-11 in 1980 gradually replacing its forerunner. In the mid-1990s, BR-28 and BR-29 – popularly cultivated mega varieties – revolutionised paddy production further in even remote areas of Bangladesh.
The country now has more than 200 high-yielding paddy varieties, according to BRRI Director General Md Shahjahan Kabir, while the latest paddy production in the 2020-21 fiscal year stood at a record 3.80 crore tonnes.
Though the agri research and development was limited to paddy production at the beginning, science and research gradually entered other farming segments such as fisheries, poultry, egg, milk and livestock. Since the independence of Bangladesh, 1,160 new crop varieties, fisheries and livestock breeds have been introduced in the agriculture ecology.
The gamechangers are BR-3 and BR-11 in paddy, fast growing fish varieties like tilapia and Pangas in fisheries, poultry like broiler and sonali breeds in white meat and egg production. And all of them were invented, developed or modified locally.
Thirteen public institutions and other private firms are now working on livestock, fisheries and crop development, according to the "100 years of Agricultural Development in Bangladesh" by the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (BARC).
The Rice Research Institute was established in 1970 in the then East Pakistan, and renamed to Bangladesh Rice Research Institute after 1971. The characteristics of BRRI developed paddies range from insect, salinity, flood, drizzle and cold tolerant varieties to zinc-enriched high-yielding crops.
Apart from BRRI, the Bangladesh Institute of Nuclear Agriculture (BINA) works to develop new types of paddies, plus inventing pest tolerant crops, reducing the yield times, minimising post-harvest losses and increasing shelf life.
"Our crop varieties and efficient farming technologies have been helping agri production grow every year," said BINA Director General Mirza Mofazzal Islam.
The Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) – an autonomous organisation that conducts research on crops except rice – too has developed some new varieties of wheat, maize, eggplant and potato that are high-yielding and can withstand adverse climate change effects at the same time.
With a major focus on potato, BARI-developed varieties have pushed potato production close to one crore tonnes. Besides, maize production also witnessed a remarkable yield of around 60 lakh tonnes. However, BARI's wheat project failed to yield the desired success because of unfavourable weather.
"Our agricultural landscape changed dramatically due to agri research," said BARI Director General Debasish Sarker. He said their current projects emphasise climate change issues to farming.
In developing new vegetables and hybrid paddies, some private firms such as Lal Teer, ACI, Supreme Seed and Brac Seed outshined the public institutions. The companies are now the key players in the local seed market.
Tilapia, Pangas led the fish revolution
Researchers brought Nile tilapia from Thailand after independence, while its commercial production began in the 80s after some experiments. As the fish appeared to be fast-growing and profitable, its cultivation spread rapidly all over Bangladesh.
At present, about four lakh tonnes of tilapia fish is produced every year. According to researchers, the species of tilapia now being cultivated is the 13th generation, which has been developed through research. The current generation of the fish produces 63% more than the first variety.
In other words, tilapia fishes that are now available in the market weighing around 1-1.5 kg are the outputs of lab research.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Bangladesh is now the fourth largest tilapia producer in the world.
Another fish was brought from Thailand in the early 90s and its commercial production began subsequently after making it suitable to the local aquatic environment. The breed is now widely known as Pangas.
Besides, researchers in labs have developed many small-sized local fish varieties so that they could be produced commercially. Their efforts raised the production of local fishes such as pabda, koi and tengra to 2.5 lakh tonnes from only 67,000 tonnes in 2008-09.
"Commercial production played a key role in ensuring fish availability. Annual fish production now exceeds 45 lakh tonnes, which is more than the local demand," said Yahia Mahmud, director general at the Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute.
According to the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock, Bangladesh stands fifth globally in aquaculture production.
The number of hatcheries has grown from only 60-67 to 950, show Department of Fisheries data. Of those, 820 are private. Since the country's independence, researchers have developed 60 fish varieties and invented many breeding and farming techniques. Commercial fisheries and hatcheries are using both the new breeds and farm technologies.
Established in 1984, the Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute can claim the credit for switching the country from inland capture to closed-water fisheries. The institute can also be credited with reviving the farm-raised fish to the regular food menu.
To prioritise self-sufficiency in fish production, Yahia Mahmud said they created more than 100 scientist posts and recruited the researchers in the last 5-7 years.
Broiler brought in to meet white meat appetite
For its flight kitchen catering service, the national flag carrier Biman Bangladesh Airlines flew in broiler chicks in the 80s. Since the new breed survived in local conditions, farmers started to take chicks from Biman for armature rearing.
But a private company Eggs & Hens Ltd first began commercial poultry production in Bangladesh. As the chickens mature within four to six weeks and the production cost is comparatively low, broiler farming took hold.
In 1983, Brac chipped in with a "rural poultry model" project aimed at grassroots farmers. The efforts and growing popularity met with a broiler boom in the 90s, and the sector appeared as an employment generator. The government also chipped in with policy support paving the way for new investments.
Apart from broilers, efforts of the Department of Livestock Services also popularised another breed locally known as "sonali chicken". With meat texture and taste similar to local country chicken, sonali's demand is rising.
Broiler and sonali now hold 60% and 40% of the market, while the poultry sector supplies 80% demand for eggs. With more than Tk35,000 crore investment, the sector meets more than 40% of local demand for meat and has turned into a major supplier of protein.
As per the livestock services department, meat production has more than tripled and egg production has nearly tripled in the last one decade.
Artificial insemination a success for milk, meat production
The country produced 84 lakh tonnes of meat and 1.19 crore litres of milk in the 2020-21 fiscal year. Researchers say though the country's milk production lags behind due to some issues, the livestock sector has made a great stride utilising artificial insemination of cows and goats.
Through artificial breeding, Bangladesh is now producing high quality bulls leading to thousands of cattle farms even in faraway districts.
The Bangladesh Livestock Research Institute says the government does not allow Brahma breeding over concern of shortage in milk production though many countries are switching to the fast-growing breed for meat. Instead, the department is prioritising improved cow breeds for milk.
Nathu Ram Sarker, former director general of the institute, said there has been a huge growth in the sector since the introduction of artificial insemination. Artificial breeding drew big investments as many young entrepreneurs are now raising cattle.
He said the institute is constantly supporting the sector by conducting research on various issues including diagnostics, technology and production.
Farm technologies that changed agri landscape
A pheromone trap is a pest and insect control measure that does not use chemical pesticides or insecticides. Instead, it uses pheromones, a biologically produced chemical that attracts insects, to lure insects and save crops by organic measures. Many farmers are now using it to produce crops with more emphasis on natural pest control.
Once farmers used to irrigate crops by paddle-irrigators. Diesel-run motors and electric deep tube-wells replaced manual irrigation all over the country.
Since the independence of the country, 1,167 new technologies have been introduced into the farming sector.
The whole agriculture process was heavily dependent on manual labour. From the use of oxen to plough fields, farmers have now shifted to using tractors for cultivating land. Agri mechanisation put an end to the slow and manual labour intensive process from planting to weeding to harvesting and threshing.
Various non-governmental organisations have been developing agri machinery while the government is implementing a Tk3,020 crore farm mechanisation project.
Small scale farming has now changed to commercial agriculture, while many agro entrepreneurs are switching to high value crops.
We need more researchers
Former chief scientist Dr Pranab Kumar Saha Roy, Dr Khaza Gulzar Hossain, Dr Tanvir Ahmed, Dr Kamrun Nahar played vital role in developing BR-28 and BR-29 varieties. Former BRRI senior scientific officer Dr Md Abdus Salam contributed in expansion of the varieties in field level.
Former BRRI research director Tamal Lata Aditya worked with the invention of 15 paddy varieties. She is also known as "Dhan Konnya".
Bangladesh Livestock Research Institute Scientist Dr Khan Shahidul Haque contributed to dairy development and cattle fattening. Dr Imdadul Haque is a key figure in Bangladesh's poultry sector development, while Dr Anisur Rahman contributed to Hilsa production with his expertise.
Other noted researchers are Mirza Mofazzal Islam and Shamsun Nahar Begum of BINA, agriculturalist Dr Mohammad Hossain Mondol and Kazi M Bodruddoza Chowdhury of BARI who developed the famous Kazi guava variety.
According to the BARC, the number of agri researchers in Bangladesh is currently 2,500, which is more than in Nepal and Sri Lanka but much less than in India and Pakistan.
"Funding is not a problem for agri research, we just need more researchers," said BRRI Director General Md Shahjahan Kabir.
To scale up agri research, a genome sequencing centre dedicated for crops is in the offing under the Jute Research Institute. The institute came to the limelight recently after decoding a jute genome.