COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc in Bangladesh. Like in many other countries, it has become one of the biggest threats to Bangladesh’s economy and food security. Bangladeshi rice farmers are facing the major brunt due to COVID-19 induced lockdown. The pandemic has had a tremendous impact on farmers of Bangladesh, particularly in scheduling sowing/planting, harvesting, procurement, transportation and marketing. Lack of laborers for these operations has been reported from across the country, particularly in places where manual harvesting is predominant.
The shortage of labor has been disrupting the production and processing of food, notably for labor-intensive crops. This disruption adds to the already existing vulnerability of the farmers, especially small-scale marginal farmers. There are concerns that measures to curtail the health crisis might affect the 2020 harvest with seasonal workers being unable to travel for the spring sowing and harvest seasons. For instance, the 2020 Boro rice harvest of north-eastern Haor (wetland ecosystem) and low lying areas of Bangladesh have been significantly impacted due to the induced lockdown, despite the relaxations offered by the government in traveling of seasonal labors. Thus, there are few laborers available with increased farm wages to help during the harvest.
As an antidote to the drudgeries of Bangladeshi farmers, scientists from the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) are proposing climate-smart agriculture (CSA) technologies, like mechanization during land preparation, rice transplanting and harvest, and crop diversification, to enhance farmers’ adaptive capacities and sustain crop productivity in Bangladesh.
Mechanical rice transplanting is an alternative means to address the labor shortage though it needs a big pool of mechanical rice transplanters, specialized mat type nursery producers (a modified mat nursery establishes seedlings in a layer of soil mix on a firm surface), and technical know-how to operate and raise the nursery. As part of the CCAFS CSA approach, in Bangladesh, 2020 Boro rice was transplanted by the rice transplanter and harvested by a combine harvester in twelve districts (10 acres/10 farmers/district) as a demo in collaboration with Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) and Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE). This CSA strategy has showcased the potential to counter the problem of availability of labor. This strategy also showcases the potential to be extended throughout the country with the support of the government.
The government can provide easy access to rice transplanters and combine harvesters to farmers at a subsidized rate. This can be coupled with training on machinery usage. Timely planting of rice was also facilitated in CCAFS’ Climate-Smart Village (CSV) sites of Bangladesh by adopting direct dry seedings of rice (DSR) on unpuddled soil by applying light irrigation. DSR establishment generally has required much less water for irrigation and labor than transplanted rice. Dry seeding also allows earlier rice planting due to its lower water requirement for establishment.
Replacing rice with short duration crops in the monsoon season is another option to alleviate the potential shortage of agricultural labor during the pandemic. Additionally, it can also address issues of the declining groundwater table. The diversification of rice with alternative crops has the potential to contribute to ecosystem services that include conserving groundwater, improving soil health and reducing air pollution by eliminating residue burning. Considering the local demand for poultry and starch industry and market opportunities, there exists a potential for diversification of rice with maize which is a must for sustainable food, nutrition and environmental security in the country, in addition to providing effective solutions for labor issues under the prevailing COVID-19 crisis.
CSA technologies could offer some relief to the farmers who have been facing the brunt of COVID-19 induced lockdown. The technologies would significantly mechanize the process and bring down the need for labor, while ensuring the sustenance of food production.