In Bangladesh, smallholder farmers are facing more extreme weather shocks and depleted soil, which can lead to devastating crop losses and reduced agricultural productivity. But with newly developed stress-tolerant rice varieties, rural poor farm households have been able to adapt to these new realities and overcome some of the challenges to rice production.
Stress-tolerant rice varieties are part of Feed the Future’s broader work in Bangladesh to introduce game-changing agricultural technologies to increasing numbers of smallholder farmers and help them diversify into higher-value, nutrient-dense commodities such as horticulture and fish. But rice remains the country’s most important staple crop, and targeted investments in that sector are helping Bangladesh approach self-sufficiency in rice, a remarkable achievement for one of the world’s poorest and most densely populated countries.
In 2013, more than 300,000 farmers grew high-yielding rice varieties that were specially bred to help overcome climate-related challenges such as flooding, drought and increasing soil salinity. Compared to traditional rice farming, using stress-tolerant rice varieties is helping smallholders reap higher yields and incomes, and the new varieties are gaining momentum as more and more farmers adopt them.
One of these farmers is Rupai Begum, a widow and agricultural day laborer who cultivates rice on a small homestead farm. In the last few years, Begum’s rice harvest was suffering due to severe drought. The decreased rainfall also meant higher production costs, as Begum had to irrigate her land to reduce water stress, which made her crops more vulnerable to pests.
A local NGO supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development under Feed the Future helped Begum learn about and access two new rice varieties – one of them drought-tolerant and the other short duration (i.e. fast-growing) – and she immediately saw an opportunity to reverse her declining yields. She was surprised at how much more quickly the short duration rice grew on her land, requiring only 115 days to mature compared to the minimum 150 days for traditional varieties, leaving less opportunity for pests to cause crop losses. Begum harvested this new rice crop while most other rice fields in her village had just started flowering, leaving her extra time to cultivate a winter crop for additional income.
Aminur Rahman is another farmer who has benefitted from improved rice varieties. In his low-lying village, flash floods damage rice crops almost every year, leaving people at great risk of food insecurity. Before a Feed the Future program helped him access improved rice seeds, Rahman couldn’t grow enough on his less than half a hectare of land to feed his five family members, and he struggled to pay school fees for his children.
With new short duration rice seeds, however, Rahman was able to grow rice in a shorter amount of time, leaving him less vulnerable to frequent overflows from the local river. He tripled the amount of rice he could harvest in a calendar year by using varieties that mature in about 90 days. Now, Rahman has increased both his income and his family’s food security, and other farmers in his village are receiving training on how to use these new seed varieties.
Innovations like these are one of the reasons Bangladesh is seeing such transformative results in agriculture and food security. Despite increasingly variable climatic conditions, Bangladeshi farmers supported under Feed the Future are seeing greater rice production through the use of new seed and fertilizer technologies, leading to up to 20 percent increases in rice yields and raising farmer incomes from an average of $426 per hectare in 2012 to $587 per hectare in 2013. As these technologies are scaled up, they are helping increasing numbers of vulnerable families become climate-resilient.
In a rural village in the southern delta region of Bangladesh, Rajopa lives with her husband and their four children. She says that for years she and her husband have struggled to feed their family on a marginal income. Like many other illiterate women in her village, she was unaware of the need to provide complementary foods to her six-month old child, who was not receiving the calories and nutrients needed for proper growth. But with help from Feed the Future, Rajopa has learned how to turn the unused land around her house into the nutritious fruits and vegetables her family needs to thrive.
Feed the Future has helped thousands of families like Rajopa’s across the globe by providing much-needed technical assistance and access to seeds, irrigation and other inputs needed to improve crop production, food quality and availability. But while improved yields and diversified crops are important for smallholder farmers, they don’t always mean better nutrition – a prerequisite for future generations of healthy adults with the physical and mental capacity to break cycles of poverty.
Recent research suggests that to make a meaningful impact on chronic malnutrition, agricultural interventions must be sensitive to how they affect access to nutritious diets. For example, programs that seek to empower women need to be mindful of how they affect mothers’ time and ability to breastfeed. Likewise, a portion of increased income from better crop yields should be in mothers’ hands to best contribute to a healthy, diverse diet for their families.
Feed the Future is shifting mindsets to help agriculture and livelihood programs make greater contributions to nutrition. In Bangladesh, the Farmer Field Schools that Rajopa benefited from have long spread innovation and local best practices among rural farmers by promoting adult group learning and observation. Embracing the need to bridge the gap between field and fork, the USAID-funded SPRING Project now calls these learning spaces Field Nutrition Schools, tailoring agricultural education at the family level while also linking crops and animals to the nutritional needs of mothers and children under the age of two.
In small groups, pregnant women and mothers like Rajopa receive both agricultural training and counseling on a package of essential nutrition and hygiene actions. These easily “doable” actions focus on dietary diversity, women’s nutrition and hygiene to prevent disease transmission and reduce maternal and child undernutrition. Reaching the community through local NGOs and government agricultural experts ensures sustainability, with SPRING passing on the skills and expertise local institutions need to be able to train women and their families in the future.
By linking agriculture and nutrition knowledge and skills, Feed the Future is striving to end the vicious cycle of malnutrition, bringing the best of agriculture, health and nutrition programs together to make a lasting impact on vulnerable families and communities around the world.
As USAID’s annual letter this year notes, in development it is no longer enough to teach a farmer to grow a new crop—or in this case, to fish. Our work isn’t done until we help a farmer learn to run a successful business too. This is precisely what is happening in Bangladesh.
Consider Harun and Bina Majhy, who have co-managed a fishing business in rural Bangladesh for years. To take their small-scale operation to a commercial level, the couple needed training and equipment.
Enter USAID. In 2011, Bina received training from USAID’s Office of Food for Peace on nursery management and fingerling (young fish) production. The next year, Feed the Future (led also by USAID) trained Harun on fish hatchery management so the Majhys could begin producing even higher quality fingerlings at a larger scale. Today, the Majhys are confident business leaders in their community – not only do they manage their own successful fish nursery and hatchery business, they also provide others with steady employment.
Bina and Harun’s story is just one of many in Bangladesh of small-scale fish farmers who have taken their businesses to the next level through an innovative partnership that links Feed the Future’s long-term food security programs with USAID’s Office of Food for Peace to scale up aquaculture as a pathway to development.
Why aquaculture? In a country where nearly 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, small-scale fish farming enables Bangladeshi farmers, particularly women, to provide nutritious food for their families and is an entry point to the cash economy. And while there is significant demand for fish in Bangladesh, small-scale fish farmers often struggle to produce enough fish for local and district markets at competitive costs.
So, in 2010 USAID launched two programs in Bangladesh that continue to change lives today. The first, managed by Food for Peace, teaches techniques that poor smallholder fish farmers are using to increase their productivity and incomes. The other is a multi-faceted Feed the Future aquaculture program aimed at increasing commercial fish and shrimp production in Bangladesh. Together with partners such as the World Fish Center, Save the Children, and ACDI/VOCA, these programs are building a comprehensive income-generation strategy to help poor households expand fish production in Bangladesh while increasing their profitability and market competitiveness.
Traditionally, Food for Peace works with poor and extremely poor households who are often landless and have limited access to the necessary technologies and techniques to start an aquaculture farm. Meanwhile, Feed the Future typically works with community champions in Bangladesh seeking to grow their established aquaculture enterprises into larger commercial operations. By bridging the gap between aquaculture start-ups and businesses looking—and ready—to scale, this collaboration is building long-lasting success in Bangladesh.
For the Majhys, the results have been promising. Before training from Food for Peace, Bina earned the equivalent of about $90 every month. Using her newfound skills, she now brings in about $129 per month through her family’s business. Equally important, she plays a vital role as a service provider, acting as a local facilitator for other aspiring women aquaculture entrepreneurs and providing quality fingerlings to her community.
Solutions to poverty and hunger are complex, which is why the U.S. Government addresses these challenges along the continuum from extreme poverty to commercial production.
“My income is increased by the Food for Peace project and my business has been expanded by Feed the Future,” Bina says proudly.
Solutions to poverty and hunger are complex, which is why the U.S. Government addresses these challenges along the continuum from extreme poverty to commercial production. Collaborating across programs is one way to increase impact and support poor families, helping them not just survive but thrive over the long term.
In Bangladesh, this partnership is helping fish farmers mitigate the immediate threats of poverty while also linking them to higher-quality fish that can help them access commercial markets. It’s a collaboration that has already benefited more than 34,000 households and 150 commercial fish farms – numbers that continue to increase every day.
Mohammad Mofizul Islam Gazi is a farmer and father of two living on the front lines of climate change in southern Bangladesh—one of the most vulnerable areas in all of Asia to cyclones and sea level rise.
In his village of Sutarkhali, he harvested rice—the most popular crop in his home country—on a small plot of land from which he was able to feed his family. But May 25, 2009, changed his life forever. Cyclone Aila unleashed her fury across the southern coast of Bangladesh and into West Bengal in neighboring India, and claimed everything Gazi and his family owned.
“We were devastated,” said Gazi. “Cyclone Sidr [in 2007] couldn’t destroy us, but Cyclone Aila nailed the last pin in the coffin. There was nothing left.”
The cyclone began as a moderate disturbance as it crept toward the coastline of Bangladesh. However, the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal fueled the tropical storm, transforming Aila into a full-borne cyclone as it made landfall. A tidal wave ripped through the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, displacing thousands of villagers. This surge of saltwater swept through the region devouring trees, vegetation and precious farmland that provides people like Gazi their chief source of food and income.
Cyclone Aila hit one of the most underdeveloped areas in Bangladesh, leaving more than 200,000 homeless in a region where survival includes tackling extreme poverty and a regular onslaught of floods.
After spending several days at a cyclone shelter, Gazi and his wife and children returned to where their home once stood. “All we had left after Aila was a single pillar of the house,” said Gazi.
He and other villagers also discovered that saltwater had infiltrated the paddies where they used to grow rice and vegetables. As time went on, they also noticed the crops they used to cultivate were not producing the same amount of harvests. Before the storm, the typical bigha—a rice field measuring approximately one-third of an acre—could produce up to 200 kilograms of rice. After Aila, farmers were only able to produce 70 kilograms on the same plot of land.
“The water didn’t move for months,” recalls Gazi, “and when we tried to grow crops, we couldn’t. We were spending money and energy in vain. There was literally nothing that was growing well in the fields and our village was suffering from malnutrition, with no job opportunities and with no food.”
In 2012, a USAID agriculture program introduced Gazi and several other farmers in the area to new varieties of rice seeds. “They told us these were saline- and submergence-tolerant seeds,” he said. “Seeing no other alternative, I and my other fellow farmers got some seeds from them and sowed them into our piece of lands.”
In partnership with international research institutes and with support from USAID, the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute developed flood- and saline-tolerant varieties of rice that produce higher yields. Rice plants grown using these improved seeds can survive between 12 and 14 days when completely submerged underwater, compared with traditional rice varieties that can only endure three or four days of submersion. For the most vulnerable country in the world to cyclones and sixth-most prone to flooding, these appear to be the perfect seeds to plant.
Developing rice seeds that can withstand soil salinity and prolonged submersion in water was a difficult process that required more than 10 years of testing and research, recalls Jiban Krishna Biswas, director general of the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute. “The first challenge was creating a laboratory suitably equipped for testing these improved seeds. My team of scientists and I feel encouraged and proud to take part in this process, which can help farmers in Bangladesh and other developing countries become more resilient to natural disasters.”
The farmers in Sutarkhali learned to plant their fields using the newly developed rice varieties. They also learned how to store and save these improved seeds to use in the following season’s rice crop. Now, they are harvesting between 250 and 300 kilograms of rice per bigha—up to 50 percent more than they produced before Cyclone Aila hit.
Gazi’s paddy also requires less fertilizer and pesticide, helping him save money he previously poured into his field to help feed his family. In addition, he and his wife preserved rice seeds for future use and sold the leftover seeds to several neighboring farmers.
“Before, I used to grow about 150 kilograms of rice in one bigha. Now, with less fertilizer, seed and pesticide, I can grow more than double what I used to grow in the same piece of land before Aila hit,” Gazi said.
Rice production in Bangladesh has tripled over the last 30 years, while the poverty rate has declined by 15 percent over the past decade. Despite these gains, 40 percent of the population currently lives below the poverty line.
Forty-eight percent of Bangladeshis are employed in the agriculture sector in a country that is one of the world’s largest producers of rice, tea, jute, potatoes, mangoes and onions. However, population growth, urbanization, and soil and natural resource depletion have resulted in the degradation of land and bodies of water. This poses a significant threat to the agriculture sector in Bangladesh. Rising sea levels, frequent flooding and extreme weather patterns compound the threats to food security.
“Investing in agricultural growth and innovation is an important way to fight both hunger and poverty, especially in rural areas where people rely on their land to survive,” says Ramona El Hamzaoui, chief of USAID’s agriculture and food security programs in Bangladesh. “This is why our Feed the Future activities concentrate on some of the most vulnerable areas in southern Bangladesh. We strive to help poor farmers increase their resilience to flooding and severe weather, and stabilize their income through improved technologies and diversified crops.”
In 2013, USAID helped approximately 350,000 farmers adopt high-yielding, stress-tolerant rice varieties in southern Bangladesh. In Sutarkhali, USAID initially reached out to about 50 families, including Gazi, to demonstrate the benefits of planting flood- and salt-tolerant rice. The seeds produced from these homestead farms were used by neighboring farmers for the next season of rice cultivation, and use continues to expand throughout the area.
“By addressing some of the most important needs—access and availability of important food resources—Sutarkhali has emerged from the wrath of Cyclone Aila and farmers are growing more rice than before,” says El Hamzaoui. “Farmers are able to farm again, families are able to eat, and the village is more resilient as a result.”
This story originally appeared in USAID Frontlines.