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Transformation of rice value chains in Bangladesh and Nepal: Status, Challenges, and Vision

Bangladesh and Nepal are two important rice economies of South Asia with large rice consuming populations. Rice productivity in these countries often goes beyond food security. It is at the core of these countries’ social and economic stability and environmental sustainability. However there are some common and stark differences in rice production challenges between the two countries. In the past two decades, Bangladesh turned from rice deficit to surplus while Nepal turned from rice surplus to deficit. Rice scientists and policymakers from Bangladesh, Nepal, and South Asia came together at the 6th International Rice Congress in Manila to discuss these as well as other challenges, and their future visions for the Bangladesh and Nepal rice sectors.

Dr. Jongshoo Shin, Regional Director for Asia at the International Rice Research Institute, opened the session on the Transformation of rice value chains in Bangladesh and Nepal: Status, challenges, and vision. Dr. Shin invited panelists to share a bigger picture of Bangladesh and Nepal and to help analyze factors that impact or could contribute more to these countries’ rice productivity such as post-harvest losses, market linkages, and access to finance. Panelists were also asked to put forward a viable direction and set of solutions to the challenges both countries are facing in this area.

The first presentation of the session was on the transformation of the rice value chains in Bangladesh by Dr. Md Shahjahan Kabir, Director General, Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), where he spoke about the history of rice farming in Bangladesh, how the country moved from being a food-deficit country to being a food surplus nation and the drivers which led to this success.

“Significant transformations have been brought with the introduction of the new and productive boro rice season, the development and adoption of more productive high yielding varieties, increasing cropping intensities and diversified cropping, and introduction and adoption of stress tolerant varieties of rice,” Dr. Kabir said. He also commended the visionary leadership of Honorable Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, on agricultural development and the government's strong support in terms of policy and funding which have significantly helped farmers and ushered in a more vibrant agricultural community. He also pointed out the role which BRRI and the Bangladesh Institute of Nuclear Agriculture (BINA) have played in strengthening the country’s rice sector while promoting agricultural sustainability through innovation and inclusion.

The second presentation was on the transformation of rice value chains in Nepal by Dr. Dhruba Raj Bhattarai, Executive Director of the Nepal Agriculture Research Council (NARC). Dr. Bhattarai highlighted that  in the past few years, Nepal turned from rice surplus to experiencing a deficit leading to large rice imports which became a big concern for national food security. Factors like limited availability of improved varieties, limited irrigation facilities, subsistence farming with limited technology-intensive rice-farming, limited use of modern inputs, climate change and policy challenges have resulted in slow growth in rice production and large yield gaps over the past few years.

“Some of the biggest challenges in rice farming in Nepal have been due to the resource constraint, inadequate access to suitable high yielding variety seeds in sufficient quantities as well as diverse environments and terrain of Nepal,” shared Dr. Bhattarai. He also highlighted limited access to markets and market infrastructure and the open border and competition with India rice varieties. He hopes that Nepal would be able to turn around rice production in the next three years with the promotion of climate-resilient rice varieties and sustainable farming practices, strengthening of the market infrastructure, capacity building in advanced science and technologies, and recruitment of extension workers with updated knowledge and skills.

Dr. Sudhanshu Singh, Director, IRRI South Asia Regional Centre (ISARC), highlighted the cutting-edge facilities, laboratories, and scientific expertise at the centre in Varanasi, India and how both Bangladesh and Nepal can leverage this toward achieving their goal of improving and increasing rice productivity in their countries in the coming years.

A panel discussion during the session also took place with participation of distinguished policymakers and rice scientists from Bangladesh, Nepal and South Asia.  The panel included Dr. Rabindra Sri Barua, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of Bangladesh; Dr. Abdullah Sazzad, Chairman, Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation; Dr. Md. Shahjahan Kabir, Director General, BRRI; Dr. Shamsun Nahar Begam, Head of Plant Breeding Division, BINA; Dr. Dhruba Raj Bhattarai, Executive Director, NARC; Dr. Hari Bahadur KC, Director General, Department of Agriculture, Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development, Nepal; and Dr. Uma Shankar Singh, Asia and Africa Advisor for Research and Partnership, IRRI. The discussions on Bangladesh centered on the priorities of the government in increasing rice productivity.  Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change challenges which have been on the rise. Bangladesh is working to increase productivity, profitability, resilience, and sustainability of its rice value chains.

The urgently needed solutions raised for Bangladesh were the development of high-yielding and stress tolerant varieties of rice, strengthening of the seed system, moving from food security to nutrition security through biofortification, and the potential contribution of genome editing and speed breeding, among others.

Nepal too hopes that agriculture-friendly government policy, subsidies on seeds, fertilizers, inputs, and improved access to more appropriate machinery would encourage farmers to move beyond subsistence farming. Promotion of spring rice is another option that could prove to be beneficial for Nepal. Public-private partnership with the government of Bangladesh and ISARC would go a long way in strengthening rice farming in Nepal.

Dr. Uma Shankar Singh highlighted how both countries could further benefit from Seeds without Borders, IRRI’s seed sharing agreement for regional collaboration, which would speed up the distribution of modern rice varieties in both Bangladesh and Nepal.

The event provided opportunities to share knowledge on successes, challenges, and future visions to transform the rice value chains in Bangladesh and Nepal, and how two countries can benefit from IRRI’s science, technology, and innovation.