Almost everyone in the remote coastal island Char Patila is linked to fishing. The sea laps gently around this beautiful island, washing it with its tide twice a day.
Badshah Mia also has a fish business. Besides, he owns about a dozen cows that graze on the island's flat plain along with hundreds of other cattle.
But his rickety cows yield little -- hardly two litres of milk a day. So do the thousands of cows that roam the island.
This is more or less the picture all over the country: low milk productivity and little meat.
So with about 2.5 crore cows, Bangladesh still has to import milk and meat -- mainly buffalo meat from India.
In comparison, the Pacific Ocean island country New Zealand with about 63 lakh cows – one-fourth of Bangladesh's – leads the global milk market.
Such low productivity has blighted not only livestock but agriculture as well, thinks Dr FH Ansarey, president of ACI Agribusinesses. In conversation with The Business Standard, he touched upon various aspects of the state of Bangladesh's agriculture and its future.
A leading personality in agri business, who has been in this profession for 41 years, Ansarey believes that while the country has made enviable success in almost all sectors of agriculture – livestock, rice, vegetables and maize – there are numerous challenges ahead.
The country has also enjoyed success in introducing new varieties of more resilient crops, while shifting focus towards agriculture mechanisation, seed production and breeding.
But the impacts of climate change have left Bangladesh lagging behind other countries in terms of productivity and the younger generation are reluctant to enter the field of agriculture. While the sector has kept pace with economic growth, Ansarey pointed out that the country still has to import around 10 million tonnes of food.
"In our country, most of the people working in agriculture are above 50 years of age. The new generation is not coming to the sector. In 2000, our farm labour was 80% [of the population]. This has now dropped to 40%. By 2030, it will drop to 27%. Huge employment in the garment sector, service industry and other business ventures and migration have resulted in this," he said.
"Apart from this, soil temperature has risen in the last 5-6 years due to climate change. As a result, the fertility of the land is declining. Besides, agricultural land is declining due to housing projects and industrialisation," Ansarey, who began his career in 1981 with the multinational company Ciba-Geigy (Syngenta) and has held top management positions in a number of domestic and multinational companies since, added.
He also said that unlike other countries, Bangladesh had failed to turn focus towards more productive breeds, further hampering output.
No alternative to hybrids
Labour shortages, climate impacts and low productivity could all come together to create a food crisis in the country, fears FH Ansarey, who holds a postgraduate in Biological Science and Zoology and a PhD in Environmental Science-Ecology.
"The impact of this state of affairs in the agricultural sector will be huge," he said.
"We need to import or produce more to meet our food needs," he said, emphasising that the only ways to feed a growing population were to increase reliance on technology and make the sector more profitable. The current methods would not suffice.
Increasing profitability of the sector would also pique interest among the younger generation. Referring to what kind of technology can be used for this, Ansarey said that given the challenges identified, the first focus should be on developing more high-yielding hybrids, which needs to be taken to the field level.
Highlighting that there was no alternative to breeding all kinds of crops and livestock, he said, "We are far behind in breeding. This work is in the hands of the government. The private sector cannot do much.
"We have to import 10 million tons of food grains. This is because 70-80% of the land is used for paddy cultivation. Yield of paddy is four tonnes per hectare, but this can be increased to 7-8 tonnes, freeing up to 40% of the land. This way, we can increase the cultivation of other crops and hence decrease imports."
But how to go about increasing the yield? According to Ansarey, the example was already present given the success of the hybrid varieties of paddy.
The newly-invented BR69 can yield seven tonnes of rice and the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute has developed a new variety with a yield of eight tonnes.
"Many are now developing new hybrids, but government's policy support is needed in this regard," Ansarey said.
"Recently, the government gave a discount on potatoes. As a result, about 40 new varieties have been introduced in the past three years. Now, the potatoes can be used to make french fries and starch," he added.
Better yields of hybrid varieties are evident in much of the world. Referring to Europe's success in high yield varieties, he said, "During a recent visit to the Netherlands with the Minister of Agriculture, we saw that they produce 1,000 tonnes of tomatoes per hectare of land. But in our country, it is only 25 tonnes per hectare in winter and 60 tonnes in summer.
In our country, a cow gives 2-3 litres of milk whereas in New Zealand a cow gives 30-40 litres. We have to work in these areas because we need to increase productivity."
The issues of using different breeds needs to be incorporated in the structure and the issues of compliance have to be clarified to increase private sector participation.
Apart from hybrids, investments are also needed in post-harvesting, something barely present in the country.
After that, attention needs to be given in fixing the supply chain, including processing and storage of crops.
Ansarey said he came to this sector with an eye towards increasing productivity.
And for that, the private sector's involvement was necessary, as all over the world it was the private sector which had access to the latest technology.
The role of the private sector
According to official numbers, Bangladesh's growth in variety and breed technology has been 130% between 2008-2020.
Technological innovation in agricultural management has grown by 103%. While both the government and the private sector have had a hand behind these growths, Ansarey says the participation of the latter has been much less than seen in other countries.
With just 60 lakh cattle, New Zealand is leading the global milk market, he said, whereas Bangladesh was still the largest milk importer despite having 2.5 crore cows. This is because of our low privatisation, he said.
"Godrej of India is running a cattle farm in Pune. They get 39 litres of milk per cow daily. We do not get more than 4-6 litres. If this model of Godrej is used in our country then milk will not have to be imported.
Breeding is not doing well in our country because of policy support. In the case of meat, we can't import Brahma and Belgium Blue breeds of cattle. These cows give two-and-a-half to three tonnes of meat in two years. The private sector will come forward if the government gives policy support," added Ansarey.
He said that due to the private sector, improved seeds are coming to the country. About 90% of the seeds were supplied by the private sector. For cattle, the government is giving 30-35% support. In the case of poultry, almost 100% is being done by the private sector.
For fish, more breeds were being imported by individuals than the government.
Research and technology
Another revolution in the world has been the introduction of Genetically-Modified Organism (GMO) crops.
When the BT Brinjal, a genetically engineered variety of eggplant, was brought to the Bangladeshi market, consumers were at first wary. But slowly, they have begun to accept it.
The high-yielding variety has also proved to be immensely popular.
Noting that research and technology were the keys in this regard, Ansarey said that GMO research should be left to the private sector and the restrictions on it should be lifted.
"No one has been able to show any harmful effects of BT Brinjal, or even corn made in a similar way," he said.
On GMO crops, Ansarey said, "Current research suggests that the fruit you eat will have extra content of minerals. As a result, its nutritional value will be higher than that of natural vitamins.
"Sustainable farming methods are being developed. Methods are being worked out to increase the yield and quicken ripening. The method of increasing the yield by using less chemicals is being worked out. In the case of fish, poultry and meat, methods are being developed to be more productive in less time.
"The government and all the conscious people of the country need to come forward to accept technological advancement on the basis of research."