Farm mechanisation, which has gained momentum over the years, is helping the agriculture sector raise productivity.
The gradual adoption of mechanisation has resulted in increased “cropping intensity” making Bangladesh one of the successful countries in terms of growing multiple crops in a year, experts said.
Currently, more than 90 per cent of crop farming has been mechanised if irrigation and tilling of arable lands are taken into account.
Besides, locally-produced agro machinery, government subsidies for farm mechanisation, improved rural connectivity and transportation, and scarcity of farm labourers have accelerated both farm and nonfarm economic activities in the country, the experts said.
Despite substantial progress in tilling and irrigating croplands, the country’s farm practice is not much advanced, especially in post-harvest area.
Meanwhile, the rate of automation in crop plantation and harvesting is still below 2.0 per cent, meaning the country has a long way to go to catch up with regional rivals such as Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.
According to the government, only 1.0 per cent of the crop seeds and seedlings is being planted through machines and the rate is 2.0 per cent in case of grain harvesting.
Studies suggest that mechanisation of these two farming segments can lower production costs by 30 per cent in the long run.
The government has allocated a sum of Tk 30 billion in subsidy for farm mechanisation tools in the budget for fiscal year 2019-2020.
Talking to the FE, Dr Sattar Mondal, former vice-chancellor of Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU) said: “We started the farm mechanisation with hardly 60 tractors in the 70s for tilling land.”
“Now the farmers have access to nearly half a million units of power tillers and tractors, which have helped mechanise more than 90 per cent land cultivation,” he said. “People are pushing out the traditional cattle.”
More than 19,000 husking mills and 250 jute mills had created a big demand for spare parts, which helped develop local light engineering sector in the country’s Kushtia, Jashore, Rangpur and Sylhet regions in 1970s.
He said the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC) has brought more than 7.6 million hectares of cropped land out of 7.9 million under mechanised irrigation so far in the country.
Development of wheat threshers by Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) and local agro-machinery manufacturers Rahman Engineering in Kushtia and Janata Engineering in Jashore had made mechanised wheat threshing machine by late 1990s, he noted.
This was later replicated in rice threshing shortly, he said, adding now farmers have more than 0.35 million units of crop threshers.
Bogra has emerged as the assembling and manufacturing hub of agro machineries in later decades.
The agro-economist noted mechanisation started in the country with the cultivation of high-yielding varieties like IR-8 rice. Later, Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) introduced many such varieties.
Bangladesh had roughly 75 million people in 1971, during the year of liberation war, and food production was a little over 10 million tonnes.
The current population is 168 million and food production has more than tripled.
Despite the constant threat of climate change, this success has come on the back of adopting modern farm technologies, policy support, better seeds and fertiliser, and the tireless contribution of the farming community, Mr Mondal added.
He said mechanisation has also raised the production of cultured fish and livestock substantially during the last three decades.
According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the country’s cereal production hit an all-time high of 40.67 million tonnes, of which 37.38 million tonnes were rice in fiscal 2017-18.
Bangladesh became self-sufficient in fish production for the first time in 2018 by producing 4.13 million tonnes of fish of which 2.2 million tonnes was cultured, making it the fifth-biggest aquaculture producer in the world, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Some 7.15 million tonnes of meat were produced against the demand for 7.14 million tonnes, of which 4.28 million tonnes came from cattle and 2.86 million tonnes from poultry in 2017 fiscal, the government data shows.
Dr Wais Kabir, chairman of the Bangladesh Krishi Gobeshona Foundation, said mechanisation has helped double and, in many cases, triple cropping areas.
He said single cropping areas were 3.2 million hectares in the 1990s, which came down to only 2.0 million hectares.
In contrast, triple cropping has increased to 1.77 million hectares from hardly 0.5 million hectares in the 90s.
He said mechanisation has dramatically changed the cropping pattern, raising production.
Dr Md Asaduzzaman, professorial fellow at the state-run Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), said apart from local agro machinery, import of low-cost Chinese engines have brought about ground-breaking improvements in both farm produce and rural connectivity in the country.
Besides, traditional engineers, known as mechanics, have been able to develop irrigation pumps operated by shallow machines and vehicles like Nosimon-Korimon and trawlers, which have added great value to farm mechanisation.
“Although tilling, irrigating, threshing and pesticide spraying have almost been mechanised, we have to go a distance to automate crop plantation, fertiliser application, reaping and packaging to cut back on production cost,” he said.
As part of tackling the effects of climate change, the gradual decrease in arable land, shortage of agro-labourers, robust farm mechanisation is a must to achieve food security, he noted.
Referring to the job loss in farming from 62 per cent in 2000 to 43 per cent in 2017, the BIDS fellow said despite a significant rise in production, the employment in agriculture has been decreasing as machines are replacing human labour.
Still, agricultural mechanisation has boosted the rural non-farm economy, which has increased employment to 50 per cent from 35 per cent, Mr Asaduzzaman said.
However, the country’s non-farm economy depends much on agriculture-oriented enterprises including trading of farm inputs, manufacturing machinery, equipment and spare parts, machinery repair and maintenance, selling fertiliser, pesticide and animal feed, etc.
Monjurul Alam, a professor of Farm Power and Machinery Department at Bangladesh Agricultural University, said the farm machinery sector has now a Tk 90.58 billion turnover annually, of which 65 per cent products is assembled or manufactured locally.
He said further mechanisation of cultivation can reduce time and labour by 30 per cent in the country.
The use of machines for seeding and fertiliser application can also save seeds and fertiliser, thus reducing production costs, he said.
“As less time is required for cultivation, the use of machines has also helped lift cropping intensity by 20 per cent and production by 15 per cent,” he said.
“Mechanisation has played a big role in increasing cropping intensity in the country as triple cropping lands have increased by 83 per cent in last 20 years,” he said.
Mr Alam suggested formulating and updating the ‘National Agricultural Mechanisation Policy’.
Sheikh Md Nazim Uddin, project director of Farm Mechanisation Project Phase-II under the ministry of agriculture, said the introduction of modern machinery like mini combine harvester, reaper, seeder, seedling transplanter, USG applicators, etc can increase production while also reducing post-harvest losses.
He said if combine harvesters are used, post-harvest loss will be only 1.27 per cent from the present 6.7 per cent.
Dr Asaduzzaman said the farm mechanisation may have boosted production but it warrants review of whether it has benefited the farming community.
He said marginal farmers having less than 2.5 acres of land now constitute as high as 85 per cent of the farm community, compared with 70 per cent in 1980.
He said the real income of the farmers has been going down due to lower price of farm produce and rising input costs.
He maintained that the massive mechanisation since the 1990s forced thousands of people to migrate as they lost jobs in rural areas.
Referring to the second wave of agricultural mechanisation that knocks at the door, Mr Asaduzzaman said agro-farmers will face further threat of unemployment.
“Are cities and industries ready to accommodate these people?” he said adding proper planning and strategy are required to give jobs to the rural migrants.
About the Tk 30 billion farm mechanisation subsidy, Professor Abdul Hamid, chairman of the Agrarian Research Foundation, said the agriculture ministry can buy more than 50,000 mini combine harvesters and rice transplanters with the subsidy.
The machinery could be maintained by the union councils and farmers would contribute a little amount as maintenance costs, he said.
This can boost trading of agro machinery and breathe new life into the rural economy, he said.
Meanwhile, mechanisation in the overall agriculture sector has also helped transform agro-processing into a vibrant industry.
Bangladesh Agro-Processors’ Association (BAPA) president AFM Fakhrul Islam Munshi said the local agro-processing sector with an annual turnover of Tk 300 billion today employs more than 1.0 million people.
He said exports of farm produce, including processed foods, fetched US$ 909 million last fiscal year.
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