Bangladesh produces most of its own food. The main crops are rice, jute, tea, sugar and wheat. Land was cropped at rate of 180 percent in 2004, 176 percent in 1997, due to the fact that a warm climate makes it possible to produce two or more crops on one parcel of land in many places. The land is fertile, but yields are often low because of a lack of capital for inputs such as fertilizer. Agriculture is often disrupted by natural disasters such as floods and cyclones. The country’s many rivers both eat away and create farm land.To meet the challenge of food shortages, the government of Bangladesh and international aid programs introduced a high-yielding variety of rice called IRRI that significantly improved total food output. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Land use: agricultural land: 70.1 percent (2016 estimated)
arable land: 59 percent (2016 estimated) (compared to 1 percent in Saudi Arabia, 20 percent in the United States, and 32 percent in France).
permanent crops: 6.5 percent (2016 estimated)
permanent pasture: 4.6 percent (2016 estimated)
forest: 11.1 percent (2016 estimated)
other: 18.8 percent (2016 estimated)
Irrigated land: 53,000 square kilometers(2012)
Agricultural land is divided into arable land (land cultivated for crops like wheat and rice that are replanted after each harvest) and permanent crops (land with for crops like citrus, coffee, and rubber that are not replanted after each harvest) and permanent pasture (land used for grazing animals such as cattle and sheep). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

[Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020 =]

Gross Domestic Product GDP — composition, by sector of origin:
agriculture: 14.2 percent (2017 estimated)
industry: 29.3 percent (2017 estimated)
services: 56.5 percent (2017 estimated) =
Agriculture accounted for 50 percent of GDP in 1985. In 2000, it accounted for around 29 percent.

Labor force — by occupation:
agriculture: 42.7 percent (compared to 1.3 percent in the U.S.).
industry: 20.5 percent
services: 36.9 percent (2016 estimated)
In 1985 about 85 percent of the population of Bangladesh lived of the land as peasant farmers.

Agriculture tends to be very labor-intensive in Bangladesh. A lot of work is still done by hand although mechanization is increasing. Due to Bangladesh's fertile soil and plentiful water supplies, rice can be planted and harvested three times a year in many areas. Despite the often unfavorable weather conditions like heavy rains and floods, food production in Bangladesh has grown steadily due to many factors including better flood control and irrigation, more efficient use of land, the creation of better distribution networks and the availability of rural credit. Agricultural exports accounted for 1.7 percent of total exports in 2004. Frequent floods keep farmers on their toes. Bangladesh is vulnerable to climate change and is regularly hit by cyclones, floods and other enatural disasters. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook” 2009]

Bangladesh is the world's fourth-biggest rice producer, producing around 35 million tons annually but uses almost all to feed its population of 160 million. Rice is the dominant crop, accounting for about 60 percent of all farmland in Bangladesh. Shortfalls are made up mostly with imports from its Asian neighbours, but when floods, cyclones and other extreme weather hit, domestic rice production falls sharply, leaving the country vulnerable to food shortages. [Source: Shafiq Alam, AFP, July 6, 2011; Ruma Paul, Reuters, February 6, 2020]

See Rural Life

History of Agriculture in Bangladesh

Agricultural in Bangladesh was greatly disrupted by the 1971 war and large floods and cyclones that occurred around the same time. Since then it has largely recovered and grew by an average 2.7 percent annually during the 1980s and 2.9 percent annually during the 1990s. There was food deficit in 1996-1997 of 210 metric tons. In 2003 agricultural production was 2.1 percent less than in 1999 — 2001. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

For a long time agriculture was the most important sector of Bangladeshi economy, contributing around 20 percent to the national GDP and providing employment for 63 percent of the population in the early 2000s. Now manufacturing, especially textiles, is an important sector. Agriculture in Bangladesh is heavily dependent and vulnerable to weather. The entire harvest of large portion of the country can be destroyed in a few of hours by a cyclone. According to the World Bank, the total arable land in Bangladesh declined from 68.3 percent of the total land area in 1980 to 61.2 percent in 2000. It is around 59 percent today. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Despite progress toward greater industrialization, in the late 1980s agriculture still accounted for nearly 50 percent of the value of Bangladesh's GDP. Approximately 82 percent of the country's population lived in rural areas, virtually all of them making their living exclusively or substantially from agriculture. Domestic production increased at a relatively steady rate in the years following independence, but not fast enough to close the gap created by the continued rapid growth in population. According to official statistics, the real value of all crops and of agricultural production rose every year in the 1980s, but except for a 6.1-percent surge in FY 1981, the gains did not exceed 3.8 percent, and in 3 of the years it was less than 1 percent. The goal of food self-sufficiency by 1990 was asserted as part of the Third Five-Year Plan, but it could be achieved only under optimal conditions. Bangladesh was still importing an average of 2 million tons of food grains each year to meet minimum needs for the subsistence of the population. Most of the imports were on a grant or concessional basis from the United States, the World Food Programme, or other food aid donors. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Farmers in Bangladesh

Many Bangladeshis earn their living from agriculture. Just a few decades ago farmers made up more than 80 percent of the population but now they make up less than 45 percent. Most farmers own only a few acres of land at most and and their holdings are badly fragmented. Farms are usually very small due to heavily increasing population, unwieldy land ownership, and inheritance regulations. Commercial farming is growing and there increasing use of irrigation and flood control measures.

Many people are landless, often working as sharecroppers, cultivating other people’s land and bearing the risk of flooding and resulting crop destruction, while often having to pay rent for land on which they to build the most basic hut-like homes they live in. Many fields are still plowed by bullock teams rather than tractors.

Agriculture in Bangladesh is largely subsistence farming dependent on monsoon rainfall but vulnerable to floods and river erosion, Peter Schwartzstein wrote in National Geographic: “Some farmers in Bangladesh refer to their homeland as a divine prank: The soil is fantastically fertile, but you’re always in danger of getting washed away. In 1998 an especially monstrous flood inundated about 70 percent of the country. [Source: Peter Schwartzstein, National Geographic, June 18, 2019]

Among Bengalis, land has traditionally been owned by families, with most land holdings not exceeding a hectare. Often times a parcel of land is highly fragmented, with an average of seven to nine separate plots per holding. Extended families have traditionally been expected to keep their family homesteads together but in practice the land is often subdivided after the death of a family patriarch and the division of land to small parcels with relatively low production is a problem.

Jute has traditionally been the main commercial crop and rice the main food crop. In recent years some people have begun raising wheat and potatoes. Cows, oxen, bullocks, water buffalo and goats are raised for labor and food. They are usually raised on homesteads by farmers not as an agricultural specialization. Fishing is done on a small scale by farmers in homestead farm and as an occupational specialty by particular Hindu castes and castelike groups among Muslims.

Agricultural Seasons and Structure of Agricultural Production in Bangladesh

There are three main agricultural seasons: 1) the spring season, marked by the beginning of the monsoon rains in April, when varieties of rice, including au, are typically grown along with jute, until July. 2) the aman season, when most rice is grown, lasting until November; and 3) the dry season, lasting until March, when types of rice known as boro, which grows well in irrigated conditions, are raised with pulses and oilseeds.

The agricultural year begins in late February, when the weather is dry and getting warmer. Over a period of several weeks each field is plowed three or four times; using a wooden plow and two oxen, one man can plow 0.02 hectares in an eight-to ten-hour workday. In addition to plowing, field preparation for irrigation involves construction and maintenance of plot boundaries half a meter high, using earth and weeds from the field. These boundaries also serve to retain water in the plots when the rains come a few months later. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Absolute production has increased, and there has been an impressive diversification into a wide variety of seeds and new crops, such as wheat and vegetables. In fact, the patterns of agriculture have been virtually transformed. A previously self-contained and self-reliant subsistence economy has given way to one dependent on inputs, credit, markets, and administrative support from outside. But the price has been high — literally — and in the late 1980s was getting higher. Abu Muhammad Shajaat Ali, in his study of the agricultural village of Shyampur, describes the local economy as a "near-saturated agroecosystem." Continued population pressure has led in many areas to increases in output- per-unit area, but at very high rates of diminishing returns to inputs.*

Shyampur exemplified the transformation going on in parts of the rural countryside affected by a modern market economy. The income of farmers in Shyampur, because of its proximity to Dhaka's high-demand urban markets, was greater than in more typical villages of Bangladesh. According to Ali, 31 percent of Shyampur's families in 1980 had a farm income greater than US$278 (Tk7,500) per year; 40 percent earned between US$93 and US$278; and the remaining 29 percent earned less than US$93. Eighty-four percent of farmers were also engaged for at least 100 days per year in off- farm work in small businesses or industrial occupations, with 70 percent of them earning between US$75 and US$295 and 23 percent receiving more than that. Virtually all of this employment was for males. As of 1980, it was rare for village females to be employed outside the household. The work they did in raising poultry, cultivating kitchen gardens, husking paddy, collecting fuel, and assisting neighboring families was not figured into calculations of income.*

Land Ownership in Bangladesh

As of the late 1980s, 80 percent of the cultivated land was owned by 35 percent of the landowning households and 30 percent of rural households were landless and 10 percent owned farms of less than half a hectare. Studies have suggested that in the mid-1980s the richest 10 percent of the village population controlled between 25 and 50 percent of the land, while the bottom 60 percent of the population controlled less than 25 percent. No significant land reform has been attempted.

The ownership of agricultural land remained one of the most difficult problems in the Bangladesh countryside. During British rule, elite large landowners, many of them absentee landowners, owned most of the land in East Bengal. After 1947 new laws abolished large estates and set limits on the amount of land one person could own. Many big Hindu landlords moved to India, but the wealthy Muslims who bought up their holdings became a new landlord elite. Legal ceilings on landownership resulted in little extra land for distribution to the poor because landlords arranged ways to vest ownership in the names of relatives. As a result, in most villages a few families controlled enough land to live comfortably and market a surplus for cash, while a large percentage of families had either no land or not enough to support themselves. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

The disparities between the richest and poorest villagers appeared to be widening over time. The large number of landless or nearly landless peasants reduced the average landholding to only less than one hectare, down more than a third since 1971. Because Islamic inheritance law as practiced in Bangladesh calls for equal division of assets among all the sons, the large population increases led to increased fragmentation of landholdings and further impoverishment. Inheritance, purchase, and sale left the land of many families subdivided into a number of separate plots located in different areas of the village.*

There was an effort to introduce land reform in West Bengal in India. In the 1960s only 20 percent of the landholding accounted for 60 percent of the total cultivated areas, and large numbers of cultivating families were landless laborers, tenants or sharecroppers. Some progress has been made.

Poor Farmers. Laborers and Sharecroppers in Bangladesh

The ready availability of large numbers of poor laborers and the fragmented character of many landholdings has perpetuated a labor- intensive style of agriculture and unequal tenancy relations. At least a third of the households in most villages rent land. The renting households range from those without any land of their own to those middle-level peasants who try to supplement the produce grown on their own land with income from produce grown on additional land. Sharecropping is the most common form of tenancy agreement. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Traditional sharecropping arrangements heavily favored the landlord over the sharecropper, with a fifty-fifty split of the produce and the tenant providing all inputs of labor and fertilizer. After decades of rural agitation, the 1984 Land Reforms Ordinance finally established the rule of three shares — one-third of the produce for the owner, one-third for the sharecropper, and one-third split according to the costs of cultivation. Poor peasants who could not obtain land as tenants had to work as agricultural laborers or find nonagricultural jobs. The 1984 Agricultural Labour Ordinance set the minimum daily wage for agricultural labor at 3.28 kilograms of rice or its cash equivalent. Employers who broke this rule could be brought to village courts and forced to pay compensation twice the amount of back wages. However, because village courts were dominated by landowners, there was still little official redress for the grievances of agricultural laborers. In fact, the structure of rural land control kept a great deal of power in the hands of relatively small groups of landlords.*

The Comilla Model, which began in 1959, has been the most successful and influential example of cooperative agricultural development in Bangladesh. Projects in Comilla District provided more modern technologies to farmers: low-lift water pumps; low-cost hand-dug six-inch tube wells; pilot research on adapting thirty- five-horsepower tractors for rice cultivation; new crop and animal varieties; testing and introduction of such inputs as chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and high-yield varieties of seeds; and new storage and processing technology. These innovations attracted resources to local rural institutions, against the prevailing urban orientation of the leadership elite. They provided some counterweight to the trend of ambitious village people seeking to leave the countryside in favor of the cities or foreign countries. Comilla, which received substantial assistance from Michigan State University and the Ford Foundation, remains a widely admired accomplishment, and the Bangladesh Academy of Rural Development, which gave broad dissemination to published reports on Comilla's progress, is world-renowned because of it.*

Underemployment is a serious problem. In Bangladesh's agricultural sector there are concerns about absorbing additional manpower. Finding alternative sources of employment as agriculture becomes more commercialized and mechanized for the increasing numbers of landless peasants, who already make up a large chunk of the rural labor force, is a major challenge. Many of those who can’t work are moving to the cities. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook” 2009]

Agriculture and Flooding in Bangladesh

Each year flood waters submerge croplands. When the waters subside nutrient-rich silt and algae are left behind Flooding and irrigation allow year-round crops. Rice is planted after water subsides from its the peak after the snow melt and monsoon season. Some deep-water strains stay ahead of the rising floodwaters by growing as much as five inches a day for a week. These strains are harvested by men in boats. Winter vegetables are grown during the dry season.

The fact that tiny Bangladesh supports so many people is proof of how fertile that soil is. Villages and fields are placed on reclaimed land. New land is created from alluvial silt as other land is eaten away by the rivers. Villagers often loose everything. The alluvial soil is snatched up and bought by the rich. One villager in a village slowly being eaten a way by a river told the New York Times, “Who wants to live with such uncertainty? But we cling to what we have for as long as we can.”

Water resources development has responded to this "dual water regime" by providing flood protection, drainage to prevent overflooding and waterlogging, and irrigation facilities for the expansion of winter cultivation. Major water control projects have been developed by the national government to provide irrigation, flood control, drainage facilities, aids to river navigation and road construction, and hydroelectric power. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Irrigation in Bangladesh

Thousands of acres of land in Bangladesh have been reclaimed from the delta waters Netherlands-style by building embankments that protect the reclaimed land (podders) from the water. A 30-year water treaty was signed between India and Bangladesh in 1996 provided water for irrigation schemes. In some places there is enough water for irrigation to produce three crops a year of fast-growing high-yield rice.

Traditional methods of irrigation include pitcher, swing basket, and a hollowed-out log fixed on a pivot and fitted with a counterbalance. These methods have a natural grace and beauty and are still practiced in rural areas throughout Bangladesh. They offer the dual advantages of depending entirely on locally available materials and on human power for their operation. In those rural areas where electricity is available, tube wells with electric pumps are becoming an important irrigation device. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989]

Water resources management, including gravity flow irrigation, flood control, and drainage, were largely the responsibility of the Bangladesh Water Development Board. Other public sector institutions, such as the Bangladesh Krishi Bank, the Bangladesh Rural Development Board, the Bangladesh Bank, and the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation were also responsible for promotion and development of minor irrigation works in the private sector through government credit mechanisms. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Thousands of tube wells and electric pumps are used for local irrigation. Despite severe resource constraints, the government of Bangladesh has made it a policy to try to bring additional areas under irrigation without salinity intrusion. M. Shahe Alam wrote in the Daily Star: “About 57 percent of the total arable land area is currently irrigated through shallow tube wells (STW). However, much of the shallow groundwater in south-eastern and south-western parts of Bangladesh is naturally contaminated with arsenic, exposing more than 40 million people to unsafe levels of arsenic in drinking water and potentially threatening food security as arsenic is toxic to rice. [Source: M. Shahe Alam, Daily Star, December 11, 2010,Dr. M. Shahe Alam is Chief Scientific Officer (Agricultural Economics Division), Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, Gazipur]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Bangladesh Tourism Board, Bangladesh National Portal (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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