Bangladesh is home to more than 1.5 million smallholder farmers producing food in some of the world’s most difficult conditions. Growers face dramatic seasonal weather changes, from drought to monsoon, so optimising agronomic practice is critical to ensure that farms remain environmentally and economically sustainable.
In the face of these challenges, ACIAR has supported research to improve water, salt and nutrient management on-farm to provide farmers with more diverse cropping options and greater yields.
A succession of programs has improved agronomic knowledge in the region to increase the profitability for smallholder farmers while bolstering food security for the broader population.
Less is more for nutrient management
One of the projects, ‘Nutrient management for diversified cropping in Bangladesh (NUMAN)’ (LWR/2016/136), has shown that yields and profits can be increased with a balanced approach to fertilisers and reducing overall inputs.
Led by Murdoch University’s Professor Richard Bell, the project tapped into a network of more than 4,000 smallholder farmers through the local Conservation Agriculture Service Providers Association (CASPA).
The project found that farmers were over-applying fertilisers, particularly nitrogen, to maximise production of high-yielding rice crops and high-value produce such as potatoes and watermelon.
But Professor Bell said that with a more balanced mix of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulphur and micronutrients, farmers could spend less for a greater return.
‘We found that farmers were not optimising nutrients, but if they did, there were savings in costs and gains in yield,’ said Professor Bell. ‘Farmers could increase their profitability and produce more food for less.’
Assisted by a ‘research engine’ of 6 PhD candidates from Bangladesh universities, the project identified optimal nutrient application rates across several sites based on soil type and cropping pattern.
The project demonstrated ‘fairly simple’ farming practices around nutrient management that are more environmentally sustainable, improve productivity and reduce costs.
Reduced fertiliser use also saves the Bangladesh Government money. To improve food security, the government currently subsidises fertilisers for farmers, and when fertiliser prices skyrocketed at the start of 2021, its annual outlay of US$700 million jumped to US$3 billion in 18 months.
To translate the project’s nutrient use findings into a change of practice, the project team produced a one-page information card listing optimal fertiliser rates according to particular agroecological regions.
The information card was distributed to more than 33,000 farmers and the researchers have received ‘highly positive feedback’. Professor Bell said that farmers who used it generally saw a reduction in fertiliser costs and greater crop yields.
The task now, he said, is to broaden the scope of the extension so more farmers can benefit from the findings.
Bangladesh collaborator Dr Emanul Haque is working with private enterprise to stock the information cards in fertiliser outlets. And work is underway with CASPA to hold peer-to-peer sessions among farmers on how to use the card. Information is also being spread through direct messaging and social media using smartphones.
More crops for saline-affected land
Professor Bell is also involved in a second ACIAR-supported project, which is investigating how to intensify cropping in the salt-affected coastal zones of Bangladesh and the West Bengal region in India. He said the aim is to challenge assumptions about what we can and cannot grow in these areas.
Led by Dr Mohammed Mainuddin from CSIRO Environment, the project is dedicated to diversifying crop options in the coastal zones where 90% of people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods and about 40% live below the poverty line.
The first phase of the project started in 2015 and has already had a significant impact, said Dr Mainuddin. He explained that farmers have traditionally relied on growing just one crop each year – rice in the monsoon season.
‘The objective was to develop technology so farmers could improve productivity of the monsoon crop and also grow another crop in the dry season to improve their livelihoods,’ said Dr Mainuddin.
The project found that a new shorter-season, high-yielding, salt-tolerant rice variety could be successfully grown in the wet season and harvested early. This allowed for another crop to be planted immediately after the rice harvest, while there was still ample moisture in the soil.
Zero-till potato covered in straw mulch has proven particularly successful as a second crop, along with watermelon, garlic, sunflower, maize and spinach, among other vegetables. In some areas, where there are sufficient water storages, dry-season rice is also an option.
‘Looking at satellite images, we can see many areas now completely covered with crops in the dry season,’ said Dr Mainuddin. ‘This represents additional income that is changing farmers’ lives.’
The difference on the ground
Mrs Shuli Ray is one such farmer. She was initially sceptical about cultivating crops on her family’s small plot of saline-affected land, which had never provided enough food even for themselves. But in 2019, a watermelon crop she grew based on the project’s research returned A$1,150.
This was enough to lease more land and convince her husband to join her working on-farm. Since then, she has made improvements to her home, acquired cows and agricultural equipment including an irrigation pump, paid for one daughter’s wedding and another’s college education, while saving a ‘modest’ amount of money in the bank.
Dr Mainuddin says phase two of the project is working to extend such economic impacts across more of the region.
The researchers are building a more complete picture of the landscape beyond their initial test sites using remote sensing image analysis to detect water stores. This will help determine which crops will be suitable for specific areas.
Resilience to climate change impacts is also being strengthened by encouraging farmers to build channels that will drain run-off from the more frequent dry-season downpours that can destroy non-rice crops.
‘One way of convincing farmers is not by speaking, but showing the benefit through demonstration sites,’ said Dr Mainuddin. ‘Once they see the benefits, they are easily convinced and they share their learning with friends, relatives and neighbours.’
Dr Mainuddin said impact is growing every year as more farmers, witnessing the benefits, take up the technology. Adoption has also been encouraged through media and government extension activities in West Bengal and Bangladesh, where funding has been provided to in-country partner research organisations, institutes and universities to demonstrate the technology.
ACIAR Research Program Manager, Soil and Land Management, Dr James Quilty said the project teams have worked closely with each other and with smallholder farmers to enable broad and meaningful impact.
‘There have been real benefits to farmers’ productivity as well as environmental benefits, soil health benefits, food security benefits and a benefit to the government of Bangladesh,’ said Dr Quilty.
‘They are a very good example of how we are developing, designing and supporting research in an integrated way.
‘We’ve developed this knowledge, we’ve shown it can work and that farmers are willing to adopt it. I’m interested in ensuring that we don’t stop where we’re at.’
Considering the gains demonstrated, and as the projects enter their final stages, he said the next step is to scale-up – to encourage adoption at a broader scale by providing information in a format that is useful to farmers.
Opportunities are being explored with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to help enable a comprehensive countrywide roll-out of the research findings.
ACIAR PROJECTS: ‘Nutrient management for diversified cropping in Bangladesh (NUMAN)’ (LWR/2016/136); ‘Cropping system intensification in the salt-affected coastal zones of Bangladesh and West Bengal, India’ (LWR/2014/073)