Bangladesh has demonstrated significant progress in food production over the last four decades. It has, to a large extent, come out of the Malthusian notion of doom foretold, as food production surpassed population growth. The country is now regarded as almost self-sufficient in food production and it is quite possible for the country to emerge as net food exporter, especially rice as opportunities are unfolding through innovation in introducing newer varieties of rice seeds that are tolerant to extreme climatic conditions. To sustain the current yield growth and progress further to emerge as a net exporter, the two major options would be to invest significantly in research and development (R&D) of modern varieties (MV), and utilise comparative advantage through gainful exchange with the countries having similar agro-ecological conditions. While R&D has uncertainties and would take time to bring in expected results, facilitating Bangladesh rice seeds cooperation with the northeastern Indian states that have similar agro-ecological condition would unleash immediate gainful results.
In Bangladesh and India, given the status of rice as a staple food, food insecurity and ensuing impact of climate change on agriculture, it is of critical importance that rice seed industry is adequately nurtured and made more efficient. It is believed, as indicated by several initiatives by international research and development organisations, including IRRI (International Rice Research Institute), that cooperation and collaboration in seeds between Bangladesh and India could help both the countries to improve their food situation. It can be achieved by widening of the scope of the seed system in both the countries. It is expected that it will significantly benefit various stakeholders, particularly farmers from both countries.
Demand for rice seeds has been increasing steadily both in Bangladesh and India as the demand for rice is triggered up by the population growth. Therefore, the demand for modern varieties is showing upward trend. Excess demand is found in rice seed sector even after considerable involvement of private sector. According to BADC (2011), 39 per cent of demand was met by the government, of which BADC (Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation) directly supplied 40 per cent, DAE (Department of Agricultural Extension) 44 per cent and private sector 16 per cent.
The supply of seed although lower than required amount is close to demand in Boro season. The excess demand is staggering in Aush and Aman seasons when only 13 and 24 per cent of demand can be met respectively through market availability. The total excess demand stood at 180,890 tonne in 2009-10. Aush, Aman and Boro have the share of 6.6, 38 and 54 per cent of total rice production respectively in Bangladesh. Boro is found to be the most productive season having the highest average yield. Aush and Aman also have potential for innovation of new varieties, and can be the building block of the new era of cooperation, whereby we can take support of India, and India can get support from us in the case of Boro where it is lagging behind.
A recent analysis of CUTS International shows that Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal had 425,723 quintals of excess certified paddy seed in 2013. The unit value of cost of seed import from China is around five times that of India. It is perceived that bilateral seed trade between India and Bangladesh can create a win-win situation for both countries.
The current policies reveal that there is no apparent restriction that can deter import of rice seed and its replication in Bangladesh for commercial purposes. The registration process is standard for all countries and applicable even for public companies. One aspect of the policy framework is that all notified crop seeds have to undergo two seasons of field testing to examine whether they are certified by origin country or international bodies or not certified at all. This provision while safeguarding farmers interest, makes the registration process quite lengthy
The regulatory framework partly explains why there exists informal seed trade between India and Bangladesh. Farmers through their network might be interested in a particular variety from the other side of the border. A recent study of Unnayan Shamannay reveals considerable informal import of rice seeds from India in Jessore, Lalmonirhat and Chapai Nawabganj districts. According to the study, Miniket and Swarna seeds are coming informally into Bangladesh at Benapole area of Jessore district in 30 kg packs. These are certified seeds from the Indian authority, which are sold in the informal market at Tk 60 per kg. In the absence of institutional mechanism required for supply of that seed, widespread informal trade are making these seeds available. India also places regulations and policies that regulate rice seed import. It is neither possible nor efficient for a small, medium or large farmer to complete the processes required for importing seed legally.
To formalise this type of trade there is scope for private sector involvement. Private enterprises, by following the present regulation of going through national seed board, can make these seeds available in domestic market. If the prices and packaging are kept at competitive level, trade could be formalised. Further insight can be derived from field research.
Formalising this trade will, on the one hand, take agricultural cooperation to a higher level and ensure quality input at farmer's level, on the other. Bi-directional informal seed flows between Bangladesh and India is evident. Formal trade can lead to a win-win situation for both countries. Bangladesh has around 65 varieties of HYV rice, many of these such as BR-11, BRRI Dhan-28 and BRRI Dhan-29 are found to be very popular in Indian states. Assam Agricultural University has requested BRRI to provide seed of BR-29 as this variety is suitable for cultivation in Assam. Recently, BADC has exported 40 kg of SL-8H hybrid seed to India which will be cultivated experimentally.
There is also scope for introducing submergence-and-stress-tolerant varieties in both the countries. Indian varieties Miniket, Swarna, Sampa and Parija are found popular in border belts as well as in other regions of Bangladesh. Although India is a net seed exporting country, Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand and West Bengal are seed deficit and are characterised by lower level of seed replacement rate compared to that of Bangladesh. States like Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra are major sources of HYV rice seeds to these states.
For greater collaboration and cooperation in MV rice seed, there should be attempts in both countries to estimate informal flow of rice seeds to understand the demand for Bangladeshi/Indian varieties in each other's countries. Seed policies of the both countries do not put any restriction on import/export of MV rice seeds. It needs to be explored why trade in MV rice seed does not exist though seeds of other crops are being traded.
Finally, as both the countries experience resource and technical constraints, cooperation is probably the best way out. There should be proper government-level avenues to enhance cooperation between the two countries to harmonise standards, ease certification procedures and compliance of quarantine laws, develop regional/bilateral seed bank, establish joint body for research and development in agriculture, allow seed trade in Border Haats, and share genes of existing varieties so that each country can release the varieties of the other. There is also the need for cooperation among rice research institutes of both countries to facilitate collaboration in developing MV rice seeds and its use.
Dr. Mahfuz Kabir is Senior Research Fellow, Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS), Dhaka.
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