Pandemics, climate change and food security | Sunday Observer

Pandemics, climate change and food security

Every country has a unique heritage. A country’s heritage can bring up a ‘collective heritage with diversity’, unique to a particular region. For example, the South Asian region has differences and commonalities and provides an interesting human tapestry for learning, especially by way of tourism and cultural interaction. However, when the world is gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic, the time is ripe to mobilise the collective inherited wisdom to deal with the pandemic.

The larger collective of common heritage,especially in agriculture could be relevant in the nexus between food security, health and economics. Despite the gloomy scenario, the Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity to re-align the nation(s) and region(s)and re-think how much we have used our ‘heritage knowledge’, said former Bangladesh High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Riaz Hamidullah. He spoke to the Sunday Observer prior to leaving Sri Lanka after serving four years in the country.

Climate change and climatic vulnerabilities are increasingly crucial for South Asian countries, cutting across economy, health, society, culture, Hamidullah said. He said South Asian communities can engage pro-actively in seeking solutions, especially using traditional knowledge, such as in the realm of agriculture.


Q. Many speak of the importance of being resilient in health, climate and economy. What is your view on this in terms of the common South Asian agrarian heritage?

A. Climate cuts across everything you mentioned. South Asia is home to diverse agro-climatic conditions, including change and the threat that come with it. Our people have a rich heritage of dealing with challenges and risks.

Each culture has diverse methods of dealing with climatic diversity - whether it is the protection of a plant or a species or farming methods of the past that were unique to geographic locations and communities. Climatic vulnerability has impacted many people over the past decade.

Countries, such as Bangladesh and the Maldives are the hardest hit in the region.

Bangladesh is turning 50 years after independence and has been increasingly addressing the twin challenges of battling climatic disasters and ensuring food security.

We are keen on protecting resilient, indigenous rice and other grain varieties that suit our soil while also balancing high-yielding varieties. It is difficult to balance the needs and expectations of the farmers and the consumers.

Farmers carry with them the memory of the farming of their fathers and forefathers. Bangladesh is pursuing a government policy to protect the traditional farming methods though it is ultimately left to every farmer to choose.

Climate change is making farmers change their cultivation patterns. For instance, many small/marginal farmers in Bangladesh who had been traditionally rice growers, are opting for mango plantation or inland aquaculture or the cultivation of other seasonal fruits. Paddy cultivation is getting costlier and riskier for them with growing erratic behaviour of climate and rainfall.

Thanks to change, Bangladesh has now been transformed into the fourth largest mango producing country.

Bangladesh is one of the most active riverine deltas in the world. Every year, our three major river systems carry billions of tonnes of alluvial soil from upstream into the Bay of Bengal.

The amount of silt carried by the river systems in Bangladesh is around one-fifth of silt carried by river systems across the world annually. As a result, millions of our people confront monsoonal flood, river-bank erosion, displacement, salinity intrusion upstream the rivers.

Records of the past decade show a dangerous rise in intensity and frequency of cyclonic storms forming in the Bay of Bengal and hitting Bangladesh’s coast with accompanying tidal surges. Lives and livelihoods in our coastal delta are at risk due to this.

Q. Do Bangladesh farmers follow heritage agriculture?

A. South Asian farmers, given a choice, will opt for the traditional methods their fathers and grandfathers used. About 75 percent to 85 percent of Bangladeshi farmers, categorised as ‘small’ and ‘marginal’ farmers, are the mainstay of our agrarian economies. Over generations, they have grown up with traditional farming practices. They are adept at indigenous/traditional farming practices. Sometimes, they offer more insights and perspectives than trained agriculture extension workers.

Farmers would confide to you their aversion or, non-preference over using chemical fertiliser and pesticides. It is not that they do not know their impact on health, soil and water.

The question is ‘why’ and ‘how’ they are moving away from their inter-generational heritage of farming practices.

The answers to these questions are diverse e.g. it could be the lack of support. In a country, such as Bangladesh, the eighth most-populous, and yet self-sufficient in food production, there are many limitations. When agro-multinationals would come with cheaper options, farmers shift to chemical-induced agricultural solutions and options.

The way forward is to understand intricacies and inter-linkages around farming and wider agro-ecology and agro-economy. With a broader understanding, we can develop beneficial and sustainable solutions and options in keeping alive the traditional/indigenous farming heritage. Water is a crucial and hard-to-come-by input in farming in South Asia. For instance, 3,500 litres of water are needed to produce one kg of rice. Efforts are on to roll out innovation to cut down 1,800 to 2,000 litres of water per kg of rice

Q. Bangladesh activists, such as Farida Akhtar and the organisation UBINIG and the Nayakrishi Andolan are championing for community-based traditional seed banks to preserve indigenous and endemic plant species. Shouldn’t the governments encourage such moves?

A. It is all about sustainability. This is in motion. There are limitations. But, we need more people and community-based organisations to promote traditional seed varieties and traditional irrigation methods/practices.

Irrigation is a key in agriculture. In Sri Lanka, the ancient rulers had a vision for irrigation. They created irrigation marvels.

A dominant issue for farmers is the high cost of irrigation. Researchers are exploring ways to cut down the cost of water consumption in farming. Whether it is organic or non-organic, for countries with a vast population e.g. Bangladesh, the issue is to make farming economically viable.

If this is possible through traditional farming and if there are vast movements towards this, farmers will opt for this. Bangladesh had around 800 varieties of rice.

Most of these were traditional varieties with distinct aroma, taste and high nutrition.

The question is how and when these varieties retreated from the scene. We cannot just blame the multinationals: they offer cheaper options.

We must get economics right to resurrect our traditional farming. South Asia needs a transformation with structural support to rejuvenate and promote traditional agriculture to ensure food and nutrition security as well as the economic security of the farmers. In certain farming pockets, small farmers are saying, “There are now takers in the urban market for the variety that I used to have, which was so tasty and guarded against many illnesses and which grew less compared to the high-yielding hybrid varieties”.

In Dhaka, some farmers think that they can balance the profit by opting for low-yielding, indigenous varieties with distinct properties.

Farming is about maintaining balance. That is why we talk of conservation, preservation and sustainability together.

The question is, do we secure a balance in financial terms and qualitative terms.

Q. Do you think there is enough discourse about the link between immunity, agriculture and disease in South Asia?

A. Such discourses have started. We need more.

I would add climate change to this. Every country needs to have its climate-sensitive, traditional knowledge and practices.

The challenge is, when we are to upscale. We confront a twin challenge: to upscale to meet a sustainable level and to make profit.

Health is a core aspect. However, when economics takes over, it is all about profitability. Millions of farmers keep moving from one farming season to the next in spite of the losses they incur. Organic farming, which is a desirable health-based option for the people, especially in a global health compromised situation, has to be safeguarded and elevated to a sustainable and profitable level.

The approach, tendency and response have been to come up with fixed solutions. For example, in one part of South Asia, to augment production, last year there was 100 kg yield from ‘x’ size land.

The next season, the farmer asks his son, “putha, this time it has to be 110 kg because our neighbour farmer has put 10 kg urea fertiliser. You apply 12 kg of urea. We can’t lag behind”. This is a disastrous phenomenon.

The result is disastrous: skin and other organ cancers have become rampant. Many other diseases may originate from this.

The problem comes from farming beyond a sustainable level due to competitiveness of some farmers. This is not coming from multinationals. They are not lobbying for the extra application of fertiliser. Unthinkingly, we have come to a dangerous, toxic competition to augment production.

We need urgent discourses on this to find solutions.