The impact of speedy urbanisation and industrialisation has a more telling effect on Bangladesh with its dense and burgeoning population and a relatively smaller area of land.
However, a recent policy brief titled "Shrinking availability of land in Bangladesh: New evidence" by the government's Food Planning and Monitoring Unit (FPMU) brought some good news regarding the decline in agricultural land by indicating that depletion occurred at a lesser rate than the previously assumed rate of one per cent per annum.
According to the policy brief, a survey found that cropland declined at 0.26 per cent annually between 1976 and 2010. The rate of decline was faster after 2000 at 0.45 per cent. It estimated that agriculture land has declined by one million hectares since 1976, stating that four-fifths of the country's land is still under agriculture.
While these new revelations brought some relief, the increasing rate of decline in farmland is a threat to the future of our food security, all the more so as we are moving towards further "de-agrarisation" of land, guided by the national Vision 2021 strategy.
Faced with the urgency of finding more space for farmland, policymakers in Bangladesh were pushed to promote innovation and spread of both high-yield and short duration crop varieties.
The high-yielding varieties yield the highest amount of crop for the smallest area of land, while with short duration crops, farmers can have as many harvests as possible from the same land.
While the main strategy is to ensure food security for an ever-growing population, policymakers have been adopting other strategies too. Urban agriculture is a major one among them.
With the increase in urban settlements and industrial zones, adoption of strategies and policies for optimised use of spaces for farming in these particular areas have become imperative now.
Expanding the green horizon of the capital
With scientific advancement, innovative technologies and techniques are being adopted for not only urban spaces, but also in extreme climate zones and other regions where previously farming was difficult or impossible.
Efficient planning combined with suitable techniques, both conventional and non-conventional, have helped many countries develop robust urban agriculture.
Today, almost 10 per cent of Greater London's area is farmland with around 30 thousand active allotment holders and nearly 1,000 beekeepers.
Some 650 thousand people visit these farms and community gardens every year. In Cuba, over 300 thousand urban farms and gardens produce about 50 per cent of the island state's fresh produce, along with 39 thousand tons of meat and 216 million eggs.
On average, a Cuban urban farmer yields 20 kg farm produce per square meter per year. Singapore, the land-scarce city-state, is now experimenting with vertical agriculture to feed its residents. City authorities in countries like India grant tax exemptions for city residents for planting trees on house compounds and good roof gardening.
For Bangladesh, urban agriculture is a relatively recent phenomenon as urbanisation gained pace not before the 1990s. Space for urban farming here combines roofs and land, former being the salient feature.
According to the website of the government's agricultural information service, Dhaka city has around 450 thousand roofs covering over 4,500 hectares, which is equivalent or even larger than the area of an upazila (sub-district).
The utilisation of this can bring the simply remarkable result in urban farming. Although interest in roof gardening has increased in recent days and many city farmers have been passionately engaged for over two decades, it is far from fulfilling the potential that city farming offers in the capital.
Our farmers have proved themselves most assiduous on their roofs by growing even those fruits that agronomists thought were impossible. They have grown mango, litchi, guava, lemon and almost all other kinds of traditionally grown fruits along with other hybrid and imported varieties such as Vietnamese variety of small coconut, strawberry and avocado.
Till now, urban dwellers are mostly interested in growing flower and beauty plants. Active expert suggestions and assistance in inputs may enable them to broaden their interest in growing fruit and vegetables too.
The proliferation of nurseries in Dhaka city and the outskirts is a sign of city dwellers' blooming interest in balcony and roof gardening. Plant lovers' groups along with those of enthusiastic agriculturists and agronomists have popped up on social media platforms like Facebook, which also and created welcoming spaces for the exchange of ideas and advice.
They even organise small fun affairs where they meet and exchange plants. The annual Plant Fair organised in Dhaka city is an inspiring event in which nurseries from across the country participate to sell plants and inputs to plant lovers, converging there both from in and outside of the capital.
The ministry of agriculture in recent years has set up a separate unit to boost urban farming under which agriculture officers have been appointed, while development organisations such as BRAC have been operating separate programmes combining food security and environmental perspectives.
Apart from giving regular advisory services, in 2019 its urban development programme provided over 35 thousand households urban areas with vegetable seeds and seedlings of different varieties. It also distributed over 120 thousand saplings of different tree species among 5,000 low-income urban households.
Simultaneously, experiments with greenhouse hydroponic and other techniques of vertical farming by private companies such as Maisha Group, Paramount Group and Partex Group are taking urban agriculture one step further.
Still a long way to go
With the ever-increasing pace of urbanisation, efficient use of urban spaces for food and plant production becomes imperative to achieve the SDG goals related to zero hunger, poverty reduction, health, education and skills development and environment.
In this regard, policymakers and experts need to essentially focus on broadening the scopes for urban agriculture in Bangladesh, particularly with the continuous expansion of urban areas.
The ongoing pandemic of COVID-19 has once again reminded us about the primacy of food security, as reflected in the call of our honourable prime minister to utilise every bit of spare space and corner for food production.
To fulfil her call both for immediate and long-term food security, scope for urban farming have to be utilised through methodical planning and its right execution.
A good weaving of expertise and experience, participation, innovation and traditions, and education will help us achieve that.
Md. Abdullah Al Zobair works as the Manager Knowledge Management, Innovation and Communication for BRAC Urban Development Programme and can be reached through [email protected].