Food security inexorably linked to farmers’ security

Tanim Ahmed*, NewAge, September 18, 2008

The future of small and marginal farmers and small-scale food production, and thereby food security to a large extent, revolves around access. It involves access to land and natural resources, access to inputs, access to finance, access to services and access to markets


QUITE in line with its predictably renewed focus on agriculture and in a bid to tap into the emerging global credit demand arising out of the food crisis, the World Bank has recently finalised another deal with the military-controlled interim government as part of its hastily designed ‘Global Food Response Programme’.
   

A release of the lending agency dated September 14 reads that the agency and the interim government have successfully concluded negotiations for a $130-million Food Crisis Development Support Credit. The proposed programme, claims the release, will assist the Bangladesh government to implement its ongoing policies and pro-poor programmes to cope with high food prices.
   

The World Bank also signed an agreement of about $62 million last year that focuses on agricultural technology and research. The new credit package has components that include food price policy, social protection mechanisms, increasing domestic food production and marketing response while the previous programme focuses on technology and research.
   There is no doubt that one of the primary preconditions for sustainable food security is food production. As such, there is no alternative to increasing food production.

However, merely production of enough food cereals is not enough because people must also have the purchasing capacity to procure enough food from the market to survive. In order to ensure that on a sustainable basis, the livelihoods of the small and marginal farmers must also be brought into focus. These small and marginal farmers not only form the backbone of the domestic economy and feed the entire nation, but also constitute almost half the labour force and an overwhelmingly large portion of the people living in poverty.
   

Attainment of meaningful food security would then naturally require such measures that ensure livelihoods of this vast number of people on the margins. At the same time, meaningful food security, since it is related to agriculture, requires interventions not just at the research end or in areas that lead to higher productivity but also in areas that can bring about positive change in the current agricultural system and benefit the small farmers. In that context, food production and increased focus on research would only be addressing a small segment of a much larger problem.
   

The future of small and marginal farmers and small-scale food production, and thereby food security to a large extent, revolves around access. It involves access to land and natural resources, access to inputs, access to finance, access to services and access to markets.
   

The first requirement for any agricultural activity is land. But as yet there are no land use policies that govern the future of arable land and its redistribution. There is a perceptible concentration of arable into a few hands in different corners and pockets of the country with increasing investment in agribusiness. It also implies that small and marginal farmers will become increasingly landless. One study finds that if all government khas land is distributed among all the landless people in Bangladesh, it would ensure ownership of up to 100 decimals of land per head.
   

Considering that the only means to increasing profit from agricultural businesses and large-scale investment is through the acquisition of ever larger acreage and that there are no effective ceilings on land ownership, especially relating to arable land, larger tracts will continue to be concentrated in a few hands as contract farming and corporate agriculture emerge. Acquisition of more land would necessarily mean that few moneyed quarters would be buying land from a large number of small farmers. This could also be seen as the primary source of livelihood for thousands becoming concentrated into the hands of a few seeking to maximise commercial gains.
   

Although land reforms in the neighbouring West Bengal had seen marked improvement in agricultural productivity, this is a topic that would be frowned upon since the very concept goes against a social norm rooted in medieval feudalism. Ruling establishments, being an extension of that very feudal class, would instead turn to the second best option. But even on that front there has been little progress. In an open market, especially the predatory type that the governments generally practise in Bangladesh, the authorities are unlikely to initiate land reform or even initiate such policies that strive towards redistribution among the landless. As for the landless agricultural labourers there are no laws or regulations that even recognise farm labour as a formal sector. There are yet to be any laws stipulating minimum wages and other rights and privileges that apply to industrial labour.
   

Moving on to agricultural inputs, mainly seed, fertiliser and pesticide, there is a constant shortage at the farmers’ end, especially in case of fertilisers. One thing to note here is that the country’s agricultural system has gradually become seriously dependent on chemical inputs and from the initiatives undertaken by the military-controlled incumbents it appears that even in case of seeds, farmers will very quickly shift from traditional or high-yielding varieties to terminator seeds and then on to genetically modified seeds. Whether it was by design or default, whether it is a matter of conscious policy choice or not, the fact is that although the agricultural system is moving away from its traditional and natural roots to one dependent on artificial inputs, the government is losing its ability for effective intervention. Private quarters are gradually taking up the market of seeds and pesticides, often with little effective quality control or assessment of environmental impacts of pesticide.
   

In fact, the government machinery is increasingly being used in favour of private companies selling certain brands of products. Although there is substantial debate about unquestioned acceptance of terminator technology the policymakers have not engaged in consultation with the experts, scientists or farmers’ representatives to hear their opinion. On the other hand, the government has not scaled up its activities and initiatives appropriately to ensure that input supply matches with that of the rising demand. As a stopgap measure, the government declared a programme to produce 10 tonnes of organic compost at the union level under each sub-assistant agriculture officer. It only indicates the lack of concerted and coordinated plan on this front.
   

It is widely recognised that chemical pesticides and herbicide destroy soil fertility severely and runoff from these lands ending up in nearby rivers and canals often kill off entire fish populations. Use of chemical pesticides has also severely limited fish production, which is part of the traditional rice farming system growing in the stagnant waters of paddy fields. Yet, there are no bars on sales of chemical pesticides, nor is there any effective stress on use of natural and integrated pest management system.
   

That the farmers do not have access to sufficient finances is only evident. In fact, there are no genuine agricultural loan packages from the government and the criteria applied by even the state-owned nationalised banks for agricultural loans automatically exclude the marginal farmers. The only mechanism meant for providing small farmers with some funds is the small loans of Tk 5,000 riddled with irregularity and corruption but even that is hardly an agricultural loan.
   

Compared to the loan packages, for instance ‘marriage loan’, ‘education loan’, ‘housing loan’ or ‘holiday loan’, meant for urban consumers of private banks, the so-called agricultural loans do not take into consideration the crop cycle, its profitability, it growth cycle or its vulnerability. On the other hand, the urban consumer’s education loan factors in all those considerations. Besides this small loans programme there are no other policies or regulations that stipulate lending to the small farmers from any other financial institution or bank, private or public.
   

With increasing instances of extreme weather events such as floods and cyclones and droughts, apparently fallouts of climate change, the small farmers’ vulnerability is also increasing. In this regard, there has been much talk about crop insurance but no effective initiative. Additionally, and in case crop insurance is instituted, there remains the question of monitoring financial institutions and regulating them appropriately to prevent cases of fraud where fly-by-night operators might make away with large amounts of deposits as insurance premiums, never to be seen or heard from again.
  

 It is a general complaint that agricultural extension offices are not active enough and cannot really be relied upon. There is quite understandably a serious constraint of resources in the extension services but at the same time agricultural services could be strengthened and activated. Apparently, there are over 20 different services at the upazila level from the government including agricultural marketing, information, extension and veterinary services besides a host of others. Only a handful of these services are actually active so as to benefit the farmers.
   

The farmers might benefit substantially from increased services and information through the agriculture department. Before that concrete and meaningful roles of each different department must be ascertained and duly assigned in consideration of farmers’ demands, needs and consultations with them. The agricultural services are a classic instance of gradual withdrawal of the state from providing services to the citizens. Its revival will require substantial mobilisation of resources and sincere effort from quarters concerned. However, if revived prioritising the farmers’ needs it could add substantial value to agriculture in general.
   

Finally, all efforts would come to nought if the small farmers’ ability to effectively participate in the market spurred by the ‘invisible hand’ is not ensured. The small and marginal farmers can hardly participate effectively in the market selling their produce to the highest bidder. It is a commonplace scenario that marginal farmers are compelled to sell their produce to a certain party without any negotiations, which turns it into a buyers’ market at the periphery and a sellers market at the centre, where the urban consumer is almost hostage to the suppliers and the prices they fix.
   

Farmers’ access to the urban market, or even the local market, and providing them with the facility and scope to sell their produce could potentially benefit the farmers as well as the urban consumers. This would also require serious efforts from the authorities since it would immediately disturb the status quo.
   

This entire set of programmes would require strong political commitment so that it is supported by appropriate and corresponding policies and regulations ensuring the welfare of the peasants. This political commitment should also see farmers or producers’ organisations taking shape in order to be able to gain strength in numbers and allow them to bargain for their demands unitedly.
   But the current loan packages that promote increased assistance for marginalised groups and increased spending on research besides a few other tweaks in the agricultural system would hardly address the underlying problems failing Bangladesh’s small farmers and thus impeding attainment of food security.

*Tanim Ahmed regularly writes for NewAge. Contact: tanimahmed@gmail.com

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