ST. JOSEPH, Trinidad — An increase in extreme floods in Northern Bangladesh has rendered large portions of its land inhospitable to its primary crops. Fortunately, locals’ attempts at adapting have proven even more successful than anticipated. The introduction of corn crops in Bangladesh is lifting many farmers out of poverty. This introduction has the potential to save the country foreign exchange funds otherwise expended on corn imports.
The Flood-Prone North
With a massive network of 230 rivers flowing through Bangladesh, 80% of the country is considered a flood plain. In recent years, climate change has been intensifying the incidence and magnitude of floods in Northern Bangladesh. Higher global temperatures are melting glaciers in the Hindu Kush mountains, causing downstream surges of water, which erodes riverbanks and results in flooding.
Scientists predict that flooding will only worsen as climate change persists, causing harsher monsoon seasons and accelerated glacier melt. The Bangladesh Ministry of Agriculture estimated that in June 2020, floods damaged “83,000 hectares of paddy fields,” almost 126,000 hectares of agrarian land and crops valued at $42 million. Floodwaters deposit sand onto nearby agricultural land, permanently altering both its composition and the crops the land can support.
Bangladesh’s primary crops include rice, wheat, tobacco, spices and vegetables. These crops do not perform well in sandy soil. In the 1990s, after flooding caused by a ruptured river first altered the arable soil, a period of abject poverty ensued. In desperation, locals experimented with planting corn. The locals found that corn was not only well-suited to the new soil conditions but that it was also in high demand from consumers.
Corn to the Rescue
Corn roots can penetrate up to six feet deep in sandy soil. Paddy crop roots, on the other hand, can only go six inches down. Further, corn can also be grown year-round and can be intercropped with legumes, potatoes and seeds. The majority of Bangladesh’s arable land is quite suitable for corn-growing and an adequate yield is still possible even in strained conditions.
Mature corn kernels are high-energy, contain more protein and trace minerals than rice, and therefore, could contribute to alleviating undernutrition in Bangladesh. The entire plant has a variety of uses, all of which prevent waste and are in high demand. Maize oil can be made from the kernel’s germ, maize stalks and husks could serve as cooking fuel, the post-harvest plant body can be used as animal feed and ethanol production can be developed from maize as a petroleum-based fuel substitute.
Saving Foreign Exchange
Bangladesh presently produces 3.8 million tonnes of its demanded corn domestically, reducing its imported mass to two million tonnes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted that Bangladesh’s corn import might fall by 29% “in the May-April period of the marketing year of 2020-21” compared to the previous year with more local farmers turning to corn production.
The Bangladeshi government is effectively investing in resources like training, financial assistance and incentives to encourage more farmers to grow corn. “Under the government’s agricultural incentive program,” almost 30,000 “small and marginal farmers” received cost-free corn seeds and fertilizers.
The number of farmers growing corn crops in Bangladesh is increasing daily, bringing Bangladesh closer to meeting its goal of using less water for crop irrigation and saving on foreign exchange for imports. With further prosperity, the country may be able to begin exporting extra corn in the future, bringing in foreign exchange to strengthen the economy.
Improvements in Quality of Life
Already, growing corn crops in Bangladesh has led to upward social mobility for many. Since corn crops in Bangladesh can grow throughout the year, both farmers and farmhands now have a year-round source of income. Farms are generating an abundance of corn that has led to employment opportunities for others in weeding, harvesting and drying roles year-round.
The high demand for corn enables farmers to earn about 15% more for corn than they would earn growing rice. In comparison to wheat earnings, farmers can earn 40% more with corn crops. The COVID-19 pandemic has improved these prices further due to the inaccessibility of regular supply chains. About 88 pounds of corn can sell for up to 850 takas or about $10.
Farmers have earned enough selling corn to expand their farms and cultivate corn on the new plots as well. Their quality of life has improved substantially, now able to afford home repairs, television connections and solar panels. With the uncertainty in providing three meals a day eliminated, some have been able to send their children to school, which will afford them even more social mobility in the future through their education.
Working with rather than against floods can help lift entire communities out of poverty. With continued investments and incentives for corn cultivation, the benefits of growing corn crops in Bangladesh will begin to percolate throughout the entire country, enabling its economic development and further improving the lives of its citizens.
– Serah-Marie Maharaj