30 January 2023

Land degradation and food crisis hit Bangladesh


Poor farming practices and dependence on fertilizer have damaged soils in Bangladesh. Nutrient deficiency remains a problem. Use of organic alternatives for soil grows

by Matteo Cavallito


The application of poor agricultural practices is causing soil degradation in Bangladesh putting the country’s food security at risk, the U.S.-based NGO Mongabay says. Called upon to feed a population of 170 million, the Asian nation still makes extensive use of chemical fertilizers. A choice that stems from the need to increase production but, at the same time, seems to be impacting the health of the soil.

But other factors are also affecting the phenomenon. “The degradation of soil health,” the organization explains, “has been attributed to higher crop removal due to increasing crop intensity, use of modern crops (high-yielding varieties and hybrids), soil erosion, soil salinity, soil acidity, deforestation, nutrient leaching and minimum manure application, according to numerous studies.”

The food (and soil) crisis

Production in Bangladesh does not appear to be high enough. According to data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the country has harvested 35.7 million tons of rice this year, less than initially expected. Rising food prices in teh global market – triggered by the inflationary spiral and the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine – are also a huge issue. But alongside food insecurity, as mentioned, is the phenomenon of land degradation.

The problem, Mongabay notes, has ancient roots. In less than four decades, in fact, the use of chemical fertilizers has increased significantly. Between the 1980-81 and the 2015-16 harvest season, for example, the amount of urea spread annually in the agricultural field of Bangladesh increased from about 366 thousand to 1.2 million tons.

The heavy use of intensive agricultural practices has also resulted in a decline in the presence of essential microorganisms in the soil. But also in erosion, increased salinity and acidity and deforestation. According to the Soil Resource Development Institute (SRDI), most soils in Bangladesh contain less than 1.5 percent organic matter. This is less than the minimum 2.5 percent required to ensure that fields are healthy.

Micronutrient shortages in Bangladesh and around the world

The same institute also reported an additional problem related to nutrient deficiency in soils. “IIt is estimated that the overall nitrogen balance of Bangladesh soils is negative, phosphorus balance is near to zero, and potassium balance is highly negative,” Mongabay writes. In addition, the organization continues, “The same situation exists for sulfur, zinc, boron and other organic matter, as well as pH status.”

The issue has long been known, and not just in Bangladesh. Micronutrients such as iron, zinc, folate, vitamins and more – which move from the earth into its products and with them into the human body – are crucial but not sufficiently available elements.

To date, World Health Organization estimates that 30 percent of the world’s population does not get enough of them. That means more than 2 billion individuals. This is sometimes the result of diets that are not varied enough. But also, if not mainly, the consequence of soil degradation.

Growing use of organic fertilizers

For Bangladesh, fertilizer management remains a complex operation. The country, says Mongabay, will need 3.4 million tons of urea this year. But also 2.4 million tons of ammonium, 1 million tons of perphosphate and 1.4 million tons of muriate of potassium. Much of the demand will have to be met by imports from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, China, Belarus, Russia and Canada. Although currently declining, the high prices recorded until recently have, by contrast, fueled demand for locally produced organic fertilizers. Demands have risen 30 percent in one year.

The Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council, a body controlled by the local Ministry of Agriculture, “suggested maintaining soil productivity by using organic matter,” Mongabay states.

According to Hamidur Rahman, former director-general of the Department of Agricultural Extension, another Bangladeshi government office, “Organic manure attaches to the soil structure and increases soil biodiversity by 30% in comparison with chemical fertilizer.” Moreover, he said quoted by the american NGO, “In order to ensure sustainable agriculture, the use of chemical fertilizers and organic fertilizers should be balanced to maintain good soil health as well as increased agricultural production.”