Day 7: Working harder isn’t working

Rokeya Kabir

Blog post by Rokeya Kabir

Founder and Executive Director of Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha (BNPS)
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Striving to produce ever more food is the wrong starting point for achieving food security. Instead, let’s focus on reducing inequalities by giving small-scale farmers’ more control, valuing their knowledge, and removing barriers that hamper women’s ability to farm on equal terms.

By Rokeya Kabir, Executive Director of Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha (BNPS)

Every year it seems we have to relearn the hard lesson that producing more food is no guarantee of ending hunger. This decade, Bangladesh has gradually increased rice production, saving the national economy a significant amount of foreign exchange that once went to pay for imported rice. Thanks to our farmers and their backbreaking efforts, our leaders can now smugly proclaim, “We produce enough to feed the nation!” Or “The country has no food deficit!” 

“Every year it seems we have to relearn the hard lesson that producing more food is no guarantee of ending hunger.”

Sadly, this macroeconomic reality has not brought benefits to farmers themselves. In the low-lying region of the northeast, for example, around forty percent of households are still unable to eat two meals a day, even though the region is well-known as centre of rice production. (Fishing is the other source of living for people there, but corruption and political influence in leasing system deprives fisherfolk from access to many water bodies.) 

The problem is the imbalance between price of food and the income of the poor. Bumper harvests were achieved by the state-sponsored use of new seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But those same innovations also raised production costs, even beyond what farmers can get for their harvests. Because small-scale farmers must borrow money to plant, this profit-loss imbalance keeps them locked in a vicious cycle of debt. 

It is time to rethink the technology used in farming and related services to empower peasants to earn a living, feed their families and keep food prices affordable for all income groups. Let’s start by valuing farmers’ indigenous knowledge, experience and innovation, using a farmer-led approach to improve their natural resource base. 

Investment in farmer-centric research for recovery and improvement of indigenous rice varieties should be the first step. The indigenous varieties of rice that made northeast Bangladesh a centre of rice production long before the introduction of foreign seeds have almost disappeared. The goal should be to free our farmers from dependence on the seeds of multinational companies and its local agents, including giant corporate-NGOs.  

“It is time to rethink the technology used in farming and related services to empower peasants to earn a living.”

Once seeds are under farmers’ control and their rights over them are guaranteed, farmers could regenerate and expand their biodiversity as they have for generations. Control over seeds is the lifeline of the farming community and strengthening farmers’ seed system is essential for innovation and knowledge generation.

Planting indigenous varieties of rice and other crops would reduce costs with a positive impact on lives and livelihoods. It would lessen the use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides and augment the use of organic and environment friendly alternatives. Current production methods cost the ecosystem heavily, causing damaging soil quality and extinction of flora and fauna. It would also promote diversity: of species and crop varieties, of ecosystems and habitats, of knowledge and practice, even of relationships.

Farmers lost control over seeds at the same time that they lost control over other farming essentials, like fertilizer and pesticides. The Structural Adjustment Program led by the World Bank and bilateral agencies (particularly USAID) in the 1980s transferred public services for farmers from the state-owned Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC) to the private sector. This was done in the name of promoting competition, but in reality the new market system allowed private dealers who enjoy political backing to manipulate stock levels.

“In reality the new market system allowed private dealers who enjoy political backing to manipulate stock levels.”

It’s a similar story with ground water for irrigation. Farmers are dependent on local water lords who own the deep tube-wells in each locality, privatized under Structural Adjustment. The market control exercised by water lords is a key factor in high production costs, and the wells also contaminate drinking water with arsenic.

State subsidies for agriculture have not compensated for the stranglehold exercised by private traders. In fact, studies show that sixty percent of beneficiaries of subsidies are not poor, but rich landowners and non-farmer traders. The same is true regarding bank loans: the lion’s share, which should be set aside for poor and landless farmers, goes to rich landowners.

These middle-men, rice mill owners and traders, also control the sales end of the market, offering farmers low prices at harvest time. Government and NGOs should facilitate farmers’ cooperatives to market crops directly to consumers. That would ensure fair prices at both ends, for producers and consumers.

A more just agricultural system would also remove the particular barriers faced by women farmers. Our rural women are a major part of the farm workforce, yet are virtually invisible to family, state and society. Their unpaid contribution is not calculated in national GDP at all. 

“Farmers have worked hard to increase food production, but the system is stacked against them.”

Close to half of all farmers in the nation are now women as more men have left to look for jobs in the cities or abroad. However, to be eligible for government funding for farm supplies, farmers need an Agriculture Input Assistance Card (AIAC) to prove their land ownership, which many women can't get because the land is in their husbands' names. Without the cards, women farmers have to work much harder to food on the table for their families. 

It is a gross violation of the rights of these millions of women who are relentlessly working to increase the country’s food production. No wonder a fundamental demand of the Bangladeshi women’s movement is to reform inheritance laws so that women can inherit land. Such a step is essential for sustainable agriculture and food security too! 

Our farmers have worked hard to increase food production, but the system is stacked against them. Working harder is not working. We need to change the system. Valuing farmers’ knowledge, experience and innovation is the logical place to start.

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