The herb of a gourd plant in a kitchen garden in northern Bangladesh. The government and NGOs including Catholic charities have been promoting organic farming in the country. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
Liton Corraya, a farmer and father of three, owns about one acre of land at his village home in Boraigram in Bangladesh's Natore district.
The 50-year-old Catholic grows rice and seasonal vegetables including arum and sells the produce in the market to maintain the family of five all year round.
He never uses any chemical fertilizer and pesticide, a practice he inherited from his late father. He also rears some cows and makes good use of their dung.
“My father always used compound fertilizer made of cow dung, and I have been following in his footsteps,” Corraya told UCA News.
He is one of a handful of farmers in the area using organic methods and has become one of the most successful vegetable farmers.
“Organic farming is not only safe but also very profitable. If the weather is favorable and no natural disaster takes place, I can reap double profit from what I invest in growing crops,” he explained.
Corraya says he has spent 12,000 taka (US$141) to plant and grow arum roots and, if all goes well, he expects to sell the produce for 50,000 taka.
His endeavors have drawn the attention of Catholic charity Caritas Bangladesh, which promotes organic farming through 24 agricultural projects under eight regional offices across the country. Caritas organic farming projects have about 100,000 beneficiaries.
The field office of Caritas Rajshahi, which covers northern Bangladesh, has been supporting Corraya with agricultural counseling, high-quality seeds and cash incentives.
Caritas has set up dozens of model organic farms all over Bangladesh and trained thousands of farmers to adopt organic farming.
In addition to promoting organic methods of agriculture, Caritas also carried out research projects to assess the impact of chemical fertilizer and pesticide on agriculture and on water bodies.
The South Asia Environmental Capacity Building Agriculture and Water Pollution project 2017-20, funded by Caritas Switzerland and the US State Department, aimed to tackle the use of chemical pesticides on agricultural land in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka.
The study found that chemical use in agriculture is a major cause of water pollution in South Asia and established that organic farming reduces costs and increases harvests.
Saving nature and biodiversity
The effort to promote organic farming is in line with the Church’s philosophy of taking care of nature and biodiversity, said Sukleash George Costa, regional director of Caritas Rajshahi.
“The Church believes God created nature and human beings must play the role of caretaker to protect it through natural methods. In many places, people have resorted to chemicals to increase production of crops, in the process destroying biodiversity and wildlife,” Costa told UCA News.
Since Pope Francis published his environmental encyclical Laudato Si', Caritas has been motivated to focus more on natural methods of agriculture, he noted.
“Organic agriculture is a sustainable method, which reminds us that we must be responsible in using natural resources so that our next generation can have similar benefits,” Costa said.
In recent years, some pro-organic groups have emerged who are aware of safe food production and consumption, and people are more willing to spend money on safe food, which is a matter great hope, he noted.
Natural Agriculture Center, an organic food shop in Dhaka, has become a prominent organization by resourcing organic crops, vegetables and fruits from farmers and selling them to city dwellers in recent years.
But there are considerable challenges as well.
“Farmers need a steady supply of materials such as compound fertilizers and seeds, which is often difficult. Also, the marketing system of organic products is mostly based on individual efforts. On the other hand, companies selling chemicals continue to resist organic farming for their vested interests,” Costa explained.
In recent years, initiatives have been taken to promote organic farming on church land, according to Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, who promotes environmental awareness on behalf of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh.
“In various places churches own agricultural land and we are collaborating with Caritas to promote organic farming. As we mark five years of Laudato Si', it is a good time to press on with this objective,” Father Gomes told UCA News.
Making organic farming a priority
In largely agrarian Bangladesh, successive governments have subsidized the agriculture sector to make sure the nation of more than 160 million has enough to eat.
The government supported millions of farmers by offering training in modern agricultural methods and distribution of improved seeds to boost cultivation.
However, in many places, farmers have been using chemicals, pesticides, hormones, preservatives and ripening agents, which not only made the products unsafe but also adversely impacted soil fertility and the environment.
Thus, in the past decades the government and NGOs including Caritas have promoted schemes to bring back tens of thousands of farmers to organic methods.
“Bangladesh is a small country with limited agricultural land but a large population. The government has always prioritized organic methods of farming, but sometimes farmers are not well aware about it,” Jahangir Alam, deputy director of the state-run Agricultural Information Service, told UCA News.
There are agriculture offices at district and sub-district levels to assist farmers all over Bangladesh, but farmers often go to chemical dealers for advice and end up using chemicals in their fields, he lamented.
Besides the government, some NGOs are also making notable efforts in promoting organic farming and often collaborating to gain better success, Alam said.
“Organic farming is the best way of agriculture, and we have been trying promote it to as many as people possible,” he added.