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Can native seeds be the answer to food insecurity?

September 13, 2023
topic:Food Security
tags:#Bangladesh, #Sustainable Agriculture, #food security
by:Stephan Uttom Rozario
Facing ongoing food insecurity, some Bangladeshi advocates want "every person to become a farmer." This group of female farmers is proving that the concept might not be a far-fetched dream.

Latika Mondal, 40, cultivates various types of native vegetable species around her mud-and-straw house, including brinjal, gourd and ginger, and sells them at a local market.  

"I have about 150 species of local vegetable and rice seeds, which I plant around the year," Mondal told FairPlanet. "The income from this covers my household expenses."

She said this endeavour has been extremely profitable for her, as native species do not require the use of fertilisers or pesticides.

"I sell about 10,000 (85 euros) taka worth of vegetables every year after meeting my own food needs and also providing for my relatives. I spend this money on various things in my house," she shared.

"In addition, I do not need to apply any fertilisers or pesticides on the land where I cultivate rice, because I have been collecting our local seeds. As a result, the cost is lower and the profit is higher," Mondal added. 

About 200 women from the village of Gangarampur in the Batiaghata sub-district in southern Bangladesh save, exchange and cultivate seeds of local plant and vegetable species. Lately, they are began selling those seeds in the local market, and the demand for them continues to rise.

In another coastal district, Satkhira, women have been engaging in similar efforts. They organised a seed fair and shared their cultivation methods with others while working to establish an organic agro-food market in Khulna city.

They also formed several groups around the district and now raise public awareness about the environmental and economic advantages of saving, cultivating and planting local seeds. 


Dr Iqbal Ahmad, a 75-year-old medicine expert from Bangladesh, emphasised that toxic chemicals like pesticides present in vegetables are contributing to a wide range of health issues in the human body. These include conditions such as cancer, high blood pressure, skin diseases and chronic kidney disease. Long-term pesticide exposure can also lead to the dysfunction of multiple organs within the body, he said.

Some populations, such as infants and young children, are more vulnerable than others to the toxic effects of pesticides. Farm workers and pesticide applicators are also at high risk, as they receive greater exposure.

In addition to constituting a health hazard, pesticides are also responsible for the decimation of numerous fish, bird and plant species.

According to a Rural and Agriculture Statistics Survey conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 45,172 tonnes of pesticides are currently being used to treat crops around the country - a fourfold increase compared to the past decade.

Furthermore, according to Knoema, a data platform operating under the Eldridge group, reveals that in the period from 1971 to 2020, Bangladesh had witnessed significant growth in fertiliser consumption, surging from 12.9 to 320.9 kilograms per hectare. This increase occurred at an escalating annual rate, peaking at 66.60 per cent in 1975 before gradually decreasing to 1.55 per cent by 2020.

According to Bangladesh's Ministry of Agricultural, the apparent reduction of the annual growth rate can be attributed to the use of DAP fertiliser, which has proven to be effective and environmentally friendly in preserving soil health and ensuring the production of quality crops. 

"DAP fertiliser contains 18 per cent nitrogen or urea fertilizer content. That is why the government is reducing the price of DAP fertiliser from 90 taka (.76 euro) to 16 taka (0.1) per kilogram to reduce the unnecessary use of urea fertiliser by increasing the use of DAP," Muhammad Abdur Razzaque, Bangladesh's minister of agriculture, told local media back in August 2022. "As a result of this initiative, the use of DAP fertiliser has doubled in the last few years." 

The minister further stated that the balanced application of fertilisers on crops is extremely important. "We can reduce the current use of urea fertiliser by at least 20 per cent and keep the use of urea at a reasonable level. This will not have a negative impact on crop production, but will increase production," he said. "At the same time, the cost to the farmer will also come down. To do this, we need awareness of all including our farmer."

Speaking to FairPlanet, the minister said, "Our government is taking measures to reduce the use of pesticides which are harmful to the soil and people. We are also raising awareness at the farmer level so that they do not use harmful pesticides."

Native species of crops, on the other hand, generally do not require fertilisers and pesticides to grow. According to agricultural researchers from the Bangladesh Resource Center for Indigenous Knowledge, historical evidence suggests that these crops have been naturally growing in Bangladesh without the need for chemical intervention.

"We are eating poison-free food and trying to feed people this poison-free food, too," Shyamoli Sarker, 49, a housewife and seed collector living in Batiaghata, Khulna district, told FairPlanet. "[As a result]," she added, "just as we are free from disease, the environment is free from pollution."

Sarker has roughly 250 seed types of local varieties of vegetables and rice. She often offers these seeds to her neighbour, she said, or sells them at the local market. Occasionally, people from other regions collect these seeds for cultivation and distribute seasonal varieties like gourd, eggplant, radish and shrimp seeds to city seed shops for sale.

"It is very gratifying to me that just as I am fine eating fertiliser-free food, other people are also following this path through me," Sarker said. 

"The more trees I plant, the more it benefits the environment, the more I get food from it, the more it's profitable for me. And in many cases, I get money by selling it," she shared, adding that she utilises every free patch of land in her garden to plant seeds. 

"Various NGOs, like Caritas Bangladesh, BARCIK, and BRACK, teach us how to save these seeds in a better way, such as drying them in the sun and storing them in a ventilated place.

"Because we can save native seeds ourselves, we[pass them down] from generation to generation in the family," Sarker added. 

But not only is the cultivation of organic food better for the environment compared to conventional production, recent studies also reveal what organic advocates have been claiming for quite some time: organically-grown, pesticide-free food is more nutritious.

A study published by The Organic Center, for instance, found that that organic food exhibits significant advantages in several crucial aspects, including total antioxidant capacity, total polyphenols, as well as two essential flavonoids - quercetin and kaempferol - all of which hold high nutritional value.

Tackling food insecurity, one native seed at a time 

According to a survey conducted by the World Food Programe, 22 per cent of households from low-income backgrounds, 7 per cent from medium-income households and less than 1 per cent from high-income households in Bangladesh experience food insecurity. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief of the Government of Bangladesh reported that natural disasters have resulted in damage to 10,000 houses and 6,000 hectares of crops, with an additional 1,000 fish enclosures also being destroyed.

A study examining food insecurity in rural Bangladesh also found that due to its exposure to more frequent climate change-induced challenges, the country's coastline seems particularly vulnerable when it comes to food security. 

Palash Das, a programme coordinator at Loving Care For The Oppressed Society (LoCOS), a Khulna-based NGO working to promote the preservation of local seeds, told FairPlanet that "As this area is saline, local varieties are more successful than Hybrids varieties. But traders are misleading farmers by offering hybrid seeds - promising high yield. The traders are offering the opportunity to plant seeds on loan and take money after crop production. As a result, farmers are getting stuck in that trap."

Das further argued that the seeds of these hybrid varieties cannot be preserved, and so there is a yearly need to purchase these them along with additional fertilisers and pesticides.

Local NGOs are therefore discouraging the cultivation of such hybrid varieties of crops and encourage locals to opt for native seeds.

LoCOS has been working for a decade to raise awareness among Bangladeshi farmers about the benefits of cultivating local crops. The organisation trains farmers of all genders on how to preserve seeds and sell their crops in markets. 

"We want every [person] to become a farmer, and then we will have no shortage of food. We want a type of crop that yields high yield, but does not require the use of any type of fertilisers or pesticides," Das told FairPlanet. 

No imminent pathway for eliminating hybrid seeds? 

Speaking to FairPlanet, Monirul Islam, an agrotechnology professor and researcher at Khulna University, confirmed that rural women's practice of saving and cultivating seeds of local species is beneficial to the environment, but added that since the production rates of such seeds are low, high yielding crops are still in demand, particularly in densely-populated countries.

According to the plant protection wing at the Department of Agricultural Extension, as many as 5,661 products of 359 pesticides are currently used in Bangladesh. 

The Bangladesh National Food Safety Laboratory has recently detected the presence of excessive levels of harmful pesticides, including malathion, chlorpyrifos, parathion and methyl, in vegetables, which pose risks to human health.

Specifically, a health index of 5.7 for ethion was found in lady's finger, while tomato contained 1.09 of carbaryl and 1.97 of chlorpyrifos. Brinjal, on the other hand, was found to have 1.17 of carbofuran.

Organic is the future? 

The demand for safe and organically produced agricultural products has reportedly increased among the middle class of Bangladesh. Organic vegetable shops have sprung up in cities.

 According to Business Inspection, 1,162 hectares of land were converted to organic farmland in Bangladesh out of a total 4,97,878 hectares of farmland. 

Latika Mondal and Shyamoli Sarkar hope that more and more Bangladeshi farmers will opt for organic cultivation of crops.

"We will succeed only when people realise that cultivating hybrid crops is harming the environment, as well as ourselves," Mondal said.  

The Bangladesh government is encouraging rural farmers to adopt organic methods through several NGOs, including Ubinig, Naya Krishi, Caritas Bangladesh and Oxfam Bangladesh. These organisations have so far enlisted more than 4,000 farmers in practical organic farming training workshops.

In addition to training, these NGOs guide farmers for 1 12 to 15 year-period on how make their land suitable for organic farming.

Bejoy Krishna Biswas, deputy director of the Department of Agriculture Extension of Bangladesh, said that the authorities are trying to promote sustainable agriculture practices among the population, but not at the expense of food security for all.

"We cannot rule out high yielding hybrid crops even if we want to because indigenous species are less productive," Biswas told FairPlanet. "We have to cultivate high yielding crops to feed the huge population of the country."

Image by Stephan Uttom Rozario.

Article written by:
Stephan Uttom Rozario
“I have about 150 species of local vegetables and rice seeds, which I plant around the years. The income from this covers my household expenses,” Latika Mondal.
© Stephan Uttom Rozario
“I have about 150 species of local vegetables and rice seeds, which I plant around the years. The income from this covers my household expenses,” Latika Mondal.
About 200 women from the village of Gangrampur are saving, exchanging and cultivating the seeds of local species.
© Stephan Uttom Rozario
About 200 women from the village of Gangrampur are saving, exchanging and cultivating the seeds of local species.
\'We want every [person] to be a farmer.\'
© Stephan Uttom Rozario
"We want every [person] to be a farmer."