The findings highlight the importance of off-farm income as a pathway to move smallholders out of poverty. Assessing the relative proportion of income derived from crop production compared to off-farm activities in Southern Bangladesh could provide insights into the poverty trajectory of households over time and the role of off-farm income in improving livelihoods. There is a need for enabling policies to support both agriculture development and off-farm income opportunities for smallholders to achieve food security and no-poverty goals in the region.
Bangladesh is a country in South Asia with extremely high rural population density (~1000 people km-2) and pressing development concerns, particularly in coastal areas due to risks of sea-level rise and severe tropical cyclones from the Bay of Bengal. The majority of coastal agriculture consists of smallholder, low input, rainfed, rice-based systems characterized by low productivity, high labor requirements, small landholdings with increasing fragmentation, frequent flooding during monsoon season, irrigation water limitation, and salinity during rabi season, which threatens crop productivity and limits farmers’ options for growing crops other than rice.
Previous research has shown that important factors influencing food security include inundation land type, crop management practices, flooding, cyclones, soil salinity, irrigation access, household income, household size, and access to markets. However, the relative influence of these factors on smallholder livelihoods remains uncertain because most studies are strongly disciplinary, which, compared to more integrated and interdisciplinary approaches, may fail to account for key drivers and nuances that affect food security.
Moreover, relatively rapid changes have taken place in rural infrastructure, farm size, cropping intensity, mechanization, and off-farm economic opportunities in recent decades. From a food security and income perspective, some of these changes represent challenges and other opportunities. Yet few studies have explored how whole farming systems have responded to these changing circumstances and whether the net impacts resulting from change have been positive or negative in terms of crop productivity and poverty reduction.
The goals of smallholders in this region are generally to reduce risks, generate income, and achieve food security. However, they face numerous constraints related to labor availability, access to inputs, poor infrastructure, access to credit and extension services, socioeconomic instability, and low soil fertility levels, among others. Farms in remote locations tend to lack adequate access to roads and transportation; this increases transaction costs and hampers agricultural and economic growth.
While efficient use of fertilizers, pesticides, and human labor can increase yields, many inputs may not be readily available in markets. In addition, rural agricultural labor availability is decreasing, with workers and youth increasingly interested in non-agricultural professions providing greater income. Many smallholders also lack regular access to quality extension services. Research has documented the importance of low-risk financial credit for enhancing technology adoption and crop productivity, though gaining access to credit depends on different factors. Depending on the lender, farm income, assets, age of household head, and household size tend to be important.
At the same time, Bangladesh has more than doubled its per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in recent decades, and trends in urbanization are providing new opportunities for off-farm income. When sent as remittances, off-farm activities can bolster farm income, encourage new investments, and build the capacity of smallholders to overcome economic challenges. In southern Bangladesh, it has been estimated that 77% of farmers are unable to obtain a viable livelihood through farming alone.
Farm income, monthly savings, crop price, market conditions, and access to inputs and water all impact the vulnerability of smallholder livelihoods. In addition, increasing soil salinity caused by oceanic water intrusion can decrease crop yields and revenue, leading farmers to pursue off-farm activities . Recent work on smallholder systems in Sub-Saharan Africa highlighted the importance of off-farm income and market access for poverty targeting and households achieving sufficient food availability.
As a result, these authors concluded that policies should focus on diversifying employment sources, not just agricultural production. Assessing the relative proportion of income derived from crop production compared to off-farm activities in Southern Bangladesh could provide insights into the poverty trajectory of households over time and the role of off-farm income in improving livelihoods.
Policy development to meet the SDGs must balance the needs of targeting specific issues while also reflecting the complexity of smallholder systems. For example, off-farm income may help alleviate economic concerns, but this should not compromise efforts to achieve food security and reduce risks in rural communities through the integration of income sources to both produce and appropriately purchase food. In this context, identifying the factors supporting higher cropping intensity is critical to inform policy and development initiatives concerned with boosting farm-level productivity.
This region of Bangladesh has a tropical climate with three cropping seasons (the winter ‘rabi’, spring ‘kharif-1’, and monsoon summer ‘kharif-2’ seasons), providing an opportunity to grow multiple crops on the same land annually. Increased cropping intensity could help address food security concerns because access to new arable land is negligible and existing farmland is declining due to high population pressure. In the north of the country,
Bangladesh has increased mean cropping intensity to around 190%, mostly by expanding groundwater irrigation, while coastal areas remain at 150%. Importantly, while surface water supplies could provide irrigation to produce dry season crops in coastal Bangladesh, arable land often remains fallow or planted to non-irrigated crops during this season. This fact indicates the need for research to identify the existing challenges and opportunities to overcome the comparatively lower cropping intensity in the coastal regions.
The present study focuses on smallholder rice-based cropping systems in the low-lying coastal zone of Southern Bangladesh. Many farmers in these systems fall below the international poverty line and are exposed to risks, including food insecurity, extreme weather events, soil salinity, tidal flooding, and sea-level rise. Our overarching goal was to characterize farming systems based on an integrated analysis of socioeconomic variables, farm characteristics, and crop management practices to identify promising leverage points for achieving the SDGs through improved agricultural productivity.
The specific objectives were to 1) develop factors representing key differences in farm households using statistical factor analysis, 2) evaluate changes in these factors over a decade, 3) assess how these factors affected total farm-level crop productivity, and 4) map farm household poverty trajectories over the study period to identify the key drivers of economic improvement and provide evidence-based policy advice.
The findings highlight the importance of off-farm income as a pathway to move smallholders out of poverty. Therefore, there is a need for enabling policies to support both agriculture development and off-farm income opportunities for smallholders to achieve food security and no-poverty goals in the region.
The results highlighted the importance of best-bet agronomic practices (e.g., use of recommended fertilizers and pesticides, appropriate stress-tolerant varieties, access to irrigation and drainage, etc.) for improving the productivity of smallholders in the region. Hence, access to credit for external inputs (e.g., fertilizer), access to information and extension services, infrastructure development (access to irrigation and market, polder, etc.) would be needed to accelerate the adoption of best-bet agronomic practices. Government and development agencies should focus on improving credit access, deploying better extension services, and investing in irrigation and transportation infrastructure.
Our findings also highlighted the importance of the total cropped area in enhancing overall annual crop production. Therefore, government policy should focus on protecting arable land from non-agricultural use. At the same time, government and other agencies should focus on increasing total cropped area through enhancing cropping intensity sustainably. But in order to increase cropping intensity, variables related to the factor farming challenges must be addressed, including several of the recommendations from above. Policies and investments should focus on developing infrastructure (polder, road, market), improving access to extension and credit services, and enhancing labor availability or mechanization in smallholder systems.
Read the study:
Emran SA, Krupnik TJ, Aravindakshan S, Kumar V, Pittelkow CM (2021) Factors contributing to farm-level productivity and household income generation in coastal Bangladesh’s rice-based farming systems. PLOS ONE 16(9): e0256694.