- The changing climate, rising sea levels and other anthropogenic factors are forcing a vast area of Bangladesh’s coastal zone to remain barren due to the presence of salinity in arable land.
- Overcoming these hurdles, coastal farmers, with the support of the government and various nongovernmental organizations, are now farming sunflowers and benefiting from the alternative crop.
- Bangladesh currently produces only 10% of the oilseeds it uses; imports from different countries meet the rest of the demand.
- The government estimates that the country could produce sunflower to meet the local demand for cooking oil by up to 26% by cultivating the oilseed in saline-prone zones.
Bangladesh is primarily an agro-based country where rice, wheat, maize, jute and various vegetables are considered significant and popular crops for farmers — in terms of ensuring both food security and economic benefits.
Unfortunately, changing climate, rising sea levels and other anthropogenic factors are forcing a vast area of Bangladesh’s coastal zone to remain barren due to the salinity of arable lands.
Consequently, a vast area of saline-prone land in the coastal zone remains barren during the dry season (November through May), as popular crops cannot tolerate the salt.
Overcoming the hurdles, coastal farmers, with the support of the government and nongovernmental organizations, are now farming sunflowers and benefiting from the alternative crop. Sunflowers are saline-resistant and grow quickly, offering a stable opportunity for income generation to farmers who can no longer cultivate more saline-sensitive crops.
Asim Chandra Shikhari, a farmer from the coastal district of Patuakhali, cultivated sunflowers on around 3 acres of land for the first time during the last dry season.
“I didn’t cultivate anything earlier in the dry season, for a long time, before cultivating sunflower. I harvested about 75 maunds [1 maund is 37.3 kilograms, or 82.2 pounds] of sunflower from that cultivation, which ensured me about 170,000 taka [$1,550],” he added.
Inspired from there, in the current 2023-24 season, he is cultivating sunflowers on about nine acres of land, and his neighboring 130 farmers cultivated sunflowers on about 100 acres of land.
He told Mongabay, “When I tried planting rice in this salty soil, my rice shoots turned yellow and dried up. I tried my luck with watermelons, mung beans and pulses, which also failed.”
Considering the level of damage, the local people termed the lands in the dry season as “fire soil” because nothing could be grown there, he said, adding that sunflower has easily adapted to the salinity.
Salinity triggered the shifting of agricultural practices
Bangladesh produces around 46 million tons of cereal crops annually, including about 39 million tons of rice, 1 million tons of wheat and 6 million tons of maize.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, of 8.8 million hectares (21.7 million acres) of arable land, 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) go unused for various reasons, including drought and salinity.
According to the Bangladesh Soil Research Development Institute (SRDI), the sea level is rising because of climate change. As a result, a large portion of Bangladesh will be affected by salinity, which will dramatically damage crop cultivation in the coastal area.
SRDI data show that of the 147,570 square kilometers (56,977 square miles) that is the total area of Bangladesh, the coastal zone covers about 20% and more than 30% of it is net cultivable area. About 53% of the area of the country’s coastal belt is directly affected by salinity.
During the dry months, most of the land becomes fallow, as no cultivation is possible because salinity hampers total crop production. It leaves the farmers uncertain about their livelihood.
Data shows that, of all arable land, only 800,000 hectares (about 2 million acres) are being used to produce different types of oilseeds, including sunflower, to produce about 1.2 million tons, which can meet only 10% of local demands.
After the tropical super-cyclones Sidr and Aila hit southern Bangladesh in 2007 and 2009, making the arable lands more saline-prone through tidal surges, some NGOs gave farmers sunflower seeds, fertilizer and training, free of cost. One of those organizations was BRAC, which notes that sunflower seed consists of 40-45% oil, which is healthier than other edible oils.
In 2023-24, the organization is supporting more than 2,000 farmers with improved-quality sunflower seeds, fertilizers, training and necessary financial support to cultivate 2,170 acres of fallow land in the coastal areas of Bangladesh, with expectations of producing around 1,680 tons of sunflower seeds.
“This sunflower cultivation initiative served as a beacon of hope for the farmers in the coastal districts, transforming their barren land into a golden sea of flowers that yielded rich rewards. Some farmers even aspired to establish their sunflower oil enterprises to create jobs and increase their earnings,” said Bashir Ahmed, a project manager in BRAC’s climate change program.
Local oilseed production and potential
The most common oilseeds grown in Bangladesh are rapeseed (in the mustard family), sunflower, peanut, sesame and soybeans. Among those, only rapeseed goes into the production of edible oil.
Oilseeds are cultivated in the dry season; planting starts in December or January, with harvesting in February or March.
The agriculture ministry’s 2022-23 annual report shows oilseed production was 1.6 million tons. Of that, sunflowers contributed only 0.278 million tons.
According to the Department of Agriculture Extension, mustard is the major oilseed produced in the country and meets only 10% of the country’s edible oil requirements. However, nowadays, the contribution of sunflowers is also added as a lump sum.
The government estimates that the country could produce sunflower to meet the local demand for cooking oil by up to 26% by cultivating the oilseed in fallow lands, most of which remain in the saline-prone zones.
Based on his experience and farmers’ enthusiasm for sunflower cultivation, Jashim Uddin, the director of a project on cooking oil crops under the Department of Agricultural Extension, said, “If we can produce good quality oilseed from sunflower, then we can also reduce the import amount of edible oil. Already, 10% of the demand is produced locally, and if we can produce 16% more, we can meet 26% of the edible oil demand.”
The government plans to continue the initiatives exploring sunflower seed varieties for maximum salinity resistance and testing additional crops for program adoption; he added that participating farmers expressed appreciation for the ability to generate income while utilizing cultivable, fallow land, and others across the community are eager to join the pilot.
Banner image: Coastal farmers are now farming sunflowers and benefiting from the alternative crop. Image courtesy of BRAC.