The concept that non-toxic foods are tasty and easy to digest is widely held by many organic food consumers in Bangladesh
A month ago, a small space outside the Dhaka office of Subarta Trust was turned into a tin-shed shop called Khati Krishi.
Joggers and passers-by often visit the shop for organic kitchen ingredients, particularly in the morning and evening. One such customer, Mashiur Rahman, an engineer by profession who resides in Shyamoli, was buying organic food from the shop one evening.
"For nearly a year, I have been consuming organic food available at a few outlets in Shyamoli and Mohammadpur areas. My new food habit relieves my gastric ulcer symptoms," he said while talking to The Business Standard.
The concept that non-toxic foods are tasty and easy to digest is widely held by many organic food consumers in Bangladesh. However, some medical and agricultural researchers are sceptical about the purity of organic food items.
"Organic food is good for health. But customers have no way of identifying genuine items, as almost all organic food producers lack accreditation. Consumers cannot test products' purity on their own and there is no comprehensive study on the issue," said Dr M Abu Sayeed, president of Doctors for Health and Environment, Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has no rule that defines organic food. However, some campaigners for natural agriculture have been working to promote centuries-old agricultural practices that require no chemicals.
To change the notion that expensive organic food is only for the elite, campaigners are prioritizing on saving farmlands from toxic agriculture instead of achieving accreditation for organic produce that dominate the elitist kitchen market.
They believe that popularization of natural agriculture among agrarian communities will increase fertility of the soil and boost annual production of the crops, as well as lower the prices of organic food for all classes of consumers.
A model for saving agriculture
With access to safe food being a huge concern, health-conscious mother Naznin Akhter of Dhaka's Mohammadpur has no choice but to purchase fresh vegetables, fruits, milk, rice, fish and meat from a nearby shop named Prakritik Krishi Bipanan Kendra, located at Salimullah Road.
"As far as I know, this shop sells chemical-free safe food items. I have been purchasing necessary items from here for the last couple of years," said Naznin.
Five years ago, when a group of Chittagong University graduates launched Prakritik Krishi Bipanan Kendra, the outlet offered only seven categories of naturally farmed agricultural produce and was open on only one day of the week.
The shop now has more than 120 items for sale on offer and is open seven days a week from morning to late evening to cater to their growing consumer base.
In 2004, Delowar Jahan and his peers – mostly students of the mass communication department of Chittagong University – felt that their academic studies were too biased towards Western philosophy and so could barely address issues related to Bangladesh's rural society, where they truly belonged.
To understand the communication practices of the people, Delowar and his associates chose to educate themselves in the agrarian culture of Bangladeshi farmers. They were conscious of Bangladesh being an agriculture-dependent country.
After studying grassroots-level farming for eight years, the group identified some key threats to the country's agriculture.
Farmers were applying toxic fertilizers, hormones and pesticides to avoid low harvest, motivated by the popular "Green Revolution" campaign of the 1960s.
The campaign facilitated high-yield agriculture, but the practice was slowly turning the soil infertile and also threatening public health.
The group under the Prakritik Krishi banner felt that they needed a platform to implement the centuries-old knowledge of "natural agriculture," which did not require toxic chemicals for high yields.
And so it was that in 2013, they set up a natural agriculture farm on a plot of land for crop-sharing, belonging to a farmer in Amtali village of Daulatpur upazila in Manikganj.
Unfortunately, their first attempt went in vain as the land was swallowed up by river erosion. The following year the farm was shifted to Kaliganj upazila in Jhenaidah, where the group's natural agriculture campaign succeeded after a couple of months of hard work.
By this time, the campaigners had come to learn that farmers involved in natural agriculture required a vibrant marketplace to sell their produce. To address the issue, Prakritik Krishi launched its outlet, Prakritik Krishi Bipanan Kendra, on October 24, 2014.
Every week, the shop receives orders for more than 25 maunds of fresh vegetables, two hundred litres of milk, 14 maunds of local variety full-grain rice, along with certain quantities of various kinds of flour, oils from a variety of seeds, organic poultry, fish, spices, honey and other items.
Currently, natural agriculture farmers from 15 districts supply their products to Prakritik Krishi Bipanan Kendra.
One and a half years ago, Prakritik Krishi set up Pran Boichitra Khamar, a biodiversity farm built on a two-decimal land in Kautia village under Ghior upazila in Manikganj.
Speaking to The Business Standard, Prakritik Krishi coordinator Delowar said, "On average, the organic farming method produces a yield of 75 percent, compared to the 90 percent produced by conventional agriculture.
"But only non-toxic agriculture doesn't mean natural agriculture. Integrated farming of vegetables, poultry and fish along with major crops such as paddy and lentils in a non-toxic method are parts of the natural agriculture process that helps minimize loss."
He continued, "Gaining proper knowledge of integrated natural agriculture is crucial. In order to facilitate knowledge sharing among emerging farmers and food safety campaigners, we built the biodiversity farm."
Pran Boichitra Khamar, situated about 75km west of Dhaka and 7km east of Ghior upazila parishad, is definitely not an odd establishment in the rural landscape.
Its entrance is an archway decorated with different kinds of greens. The farm's boundary is marked by a bamboo fence, also covered by Dhaincha plants (scientific name Sesbania). There is a two-storey flood resilient cottage, built of bamboos and tree-trunks and providing accommodation for farmers and guests.
A recent visit to the farm revealed the growth of a variety of winter vegetables. Cauliflower, cabbage, carrot, eggplant, radish, mustard and onion were found growing on seedbeds under integrated farming. There were too kittens, dogs, pigeons, frogs, bees and birds and poultry along with billions of insects and invisible microbes in the soil.
In one corner, large clay pots were kept in the shade where organic fertilizer "Anupran" was under fermentation. Cow dung, semi-liquid jaggery, powdered pulses and soil are the ingredients of Anupran.
"We sprinkle stove ashes and the organic fertilizer as part of preparing the field. When the seedbeds are ploughed, seeds of open-pollinated crops are sowed," said Mohammad Ashiqur Rahman, in-charge of the farm.
He said that organic pesticides like juices of neem leaves, basil leaves and marigold leaves are sprayed on the crops, while birds and frogs – substituting toxic insecticides – keep the insect population under control.
Boosting food safety movement
In 2000, Subarta Trust was formed in a rented property to facilitate voluntary caring of senior citizens and physically challenged people. A decade later, the non-government organisation launched organic farming to supply safe food to 48 beneficiaries living in Subarta's Old Home at Singair, Manikganj.
Initially, the seven decimals of leased land were used for organic farming. Over the years, the farmland was expanded to 25 decimals. The total yield has increased too.
"We put the surplus yield for sale at the Mahila Samity premises on Bailey Road. As the yield is gradually increasing, we are planning to expand the farming network across the country. As part of piloting the venture, we have launched the retail shop Khati Krishi in Shyamoli," said Selina Akter, founder of Subarta Trust.
The Khati Krishi outlet currently offers seasonal fruits, fresh vegetables, full-grain rice, wheat flour, puffed rice, milk, butter and mustard oil for sale. Khati Krishi's primary objective is creating an access to safe food for all. It has developed a business model that promotes the supply of safe food primarily to old home dwellers.
"Seven more districts will be brought under the project soon. The surplus yield will be sold to local consumers instead of in our Dhaka outlet. This is how we plan to expand the market for organic foods," Selina added.
Supply yet to meet demand
Launched in 2002 on Sir Syed Road in Mohammadpur, Shashya Prabartana now sells more than a hundred food items, such as local varieties of rice, flour, wheat, lentils, edible oil, beans, peas, dairy products, pickles, honey, nuts, sugar, molasses, spices, meat, poultry and fish.
Shashya Prabartana has been operating its e-commerce venture for Dhaka city dwellers for around a year. Adhir Chandra Das, online sales operator of Shashya Prabartana said that the outlet's daily sales range between Tk50,000 and Tk80,000.
Shashya Prabartana is the sales outlet of UBINIG (Policy Research for Development Alternative), a pioneer in the organic food movement under the banner "Naya Krishi Andolon" launched in 1988.
Farhad Mazhar, organiser of Naya Krishi Andolon, however, pointed out the key challenge. "We cannot meet demand all the time," he said. Prakritik Krishi coordinator Delowar has had similar experience.
Amid growing concerns over the rampant use of chemical fertilizers in high-yield agriculture followed by food adulteration, demand for organic food has gradually been increasing. Despite the demand, organic farming practices in the country have yet to acquire the momentum that was envisaged three decades ago.
"Organic food is cultivated on 7,800 hectares of land across Bangladesh, which is only 0.1 percent of the country's total farmland," said Dr Nazim Uddin, senior scientist at the Horticulture Research Centre under the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute.
He added that around 14,000 people were now engaged in organic farming.
Nazim, who is also the coordinator of Bangladesh Organic Agriculture Network, said, "Farmers are showing keen interest in organic farming. Despite that, however, there is yet a wide gap between the production and marketing of organic products."
While asked, Kamruzzaman Mridha, president of Bangladesh Organic Products Manufacturers Association, could not provide any information on the present market size of organic products.
He also could not make any forecast about the market's future growth.
Achieving trustworthiness is crucial
Subarta Trust founder Selina observes that farmers are still getting lured by the idea of quick monetary returns associated with a cultivation of high-yield crops through conventional methods of agriculture.
"Hence, motivating them to transition towards natural agriculture is the key to an expansion of the safe food market," she said.
Meanwhile, Prakritik Krishi coordinator Delowar thinks that awareness building among consumers is also crucial, so that the increasing sale of safe food items could benefit farmers.
Dr KHM Nazmul Hussain Nazir, general secretary of Bangladesh Society for Safe Food (BSSF), said that laboratory testing was a must to label an organic food. The BSSF is an organisation comprised of researchers from government and autonomous institutions.
"There are limited facilities for certification of safe food items. Before the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority BSSF has placed several recommendations, including the formulation of a standard Food Testing Policy, to facilitate the work of safe food producers," said Nazmul, who also teaches at the Bangladesh Agricultural University in Mymensingh.
However, Dr Shaikh Tanveer Hossain, global ambassador of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, believes that organic products' trustworthiness is a growing concern from the consumers' point of view.
"For trustworthiness, the most important matter is to ensure the availability of required information for trace ability purposes, such as details about where the products are grown and the supply chain," he told The Business Standard.
Several certification systems can be applied, such as the web-based smart traceability system, block-chain technology, group certification and participatory guarantee system or PGS.
"Social certification is another form of PGS. These systems can build reliable and safe organic value chains," he added.