Bangladeshi farmers banish insecticides

Posted: 2 August 2004

Two thousand Bangladeshi rice farmers have taken on the role of agricultural scientists and have found that they can save both time and money by reducing the use of insectcides and nitrogen fertiliser without compromising their yields, according to a new study.

The farmers, whose average farm income is around US$100 per year, have over the course of 2 years (4 seasons), saved an average of $17 per year by eliminating insecticides and reducing the use of nitrogen fertiliser. It might not sound like much of a saving, but it's a 17 per cent pay rise for people who struggle to provide sufficient food for themselves and their families, and enough to help put children through school or buy grain to tide rice-deficit farm families over to the next harvest.

Farmers at a LITE meeting in Comilla, Bangladesh. Photo: IRRI/LITE
Farmers at a LITE meeting in Comilla, Bangladesh. Photo: IRRI/LITE
Farmers at a LITE meeting in Comilla, Bangladesh© IRRI/LITE
In the last two years, the Livelihood Improvement Through Ecology (LITE) project, led by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), has trained 2,000 farmers to perform experiments in their own fields which demonstrate that insecticide can be eliminated and the use of nitrogen fertilizer (urea) reduced, without lowering yields. Four thousand more farmers are currently in training.

Eliminating insecticide

Furthermore, if LITE continues its project in the country, in less than a decade, most of Bangladesh's 11.8 million rice farmers - almost 10 per cent of the country's population of 141 million - will have eliminated insecticides and optimised their fertiliser use.

LITE, part of the IRRI-led project Poverty Elimination Through Rice Research Assistance, set out to discover the exact cause of an assumed drop in rice yield when farmers stop spraying insecticide. The ultimate aim, explains LITE principal investigator and IRRI senior entomologist Gary C. Jahn, was to identify safe alternatives to insecticides.

"To my surprise," reported Dr. Jahn, "when people stopped spraying, yields didn't drop - and this was across 600 fields in two different districts over 4 seasons. I'm convinced that the vast majority of insecticides that rice farmers use are a complete waste of time and money.

"We quickly realised the most important thing to focus on was scaling LITE up," he explained. "We've already trained 2,000 farmers. We've reduced insecticide use among participating farmers by 99 per cent, and by 90 per cent among nonparticipating farmers in the same villages. Even in the control villages, where no farmers conducted the experiments, insecticide use dropped from 80 per cent to 55 per cent, much of this because of casual contact with participating farmers."

So how did the farmers take on their scientist role? Lead farmers - local farmers who happened to be relatively successful - were taught how to conduct a simple experiment by partitioning their fields into quadrants receiving different management strategies: with and without spraying, and with and without using a leaf colour chart (used to optimise urea applications). Other participating farmers bisected their fields, spraying one half but not the other.

Doubling income

LITE farmer Joinal Ahmad. Photo: IRRI/LITE
LITE farmer Joinal Ahmad. Photo: IRRI/LITE
LITE farmer, Joinal Ahmad, has saved himself time and money by reducing the use of insecticide and urea on his farm.© IRRI/LITE
Before joining LITE, 35-year-old Joinal Ahmad grew rice on a little over half a hectare in his village of Tatoipara, annually eking out a farm income of 2,800 Bangladeshi taka, or $48. He and his wife of 18 years struggled to look after their two toddler sons and put their two older daughters through school. Now, with the money he has saved, Ahmad has been able to buy extra land and boost his planted area to almost two-thirds of a hectare. He has cut his exposure to health- and environment-threatening chemicals, and has almost doubled his annual farm income to 4,800 taka.

"I can grow rice at lower cost because I use less urea and no insecticide," Ahmad explains. "With the money I save, I help my family and pay for my children's education."

There a number of reasons why spraying is ineffective. Insecticides often kill the natural enemies of rice pests more effectively than the pests themselves and many supposed insect pests don't attack the parts of the plant that affect grain production, or the grain itself. Compounding this, many farmers use poor equipment to apply out-of-date or inappropriate insecticides at the wrong time. According to Nazira Qureshi Kamal, LITE's in-country co-ordinator, the mere presence of insects on the crop can panic farmers into spraying.

Cost benefit

After being trained to perform the LITE experiments themselves, lead farmers then train other farmers in their own village, as well as successful farmers from surrounding villages, who become the next lead farmers. The new lead farmers do the same, and the process repeats. The number of trained farmers grows exponentially with each rice season.

Jan Orsini, an IRRI consultant to LITE, says that in terms of cost-benefit LITE is extremely successful, bringing $4 farm income for every dollar spent which is well above the threshold used by the World Bank and other funding agencies to define a worthwhile project. And this is for the first year alone, without factoring in subsequent years' savings. "This will only get better with time," enthuses Orsini. "The longer that farmers use the LITE regime, the more they will save. After 5 years, say, the ratio will be 1:20, which is truly exceptional."

Dr Jahn is confident that the farmers will adhere to LITE practices because, first, they saw the results of their own experiments in their own fields and, second, LITE goes straight to the bottom line. "Where farmer field schools rely on the farmers learning and understanding ecology," he explains, "LITE relies on understanding your wallet, which is almost innate."

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