Ashim Shikari from Patuakhali saw no one cultivate a piece of fallow land for 20 years, except for paddy only during the Aman season. Last year, the local agriculture officer made him cultivate sunflowers on 0.13 hectares of the land.
“We had a bumper harvest. We never thought we could farm three different crops on this fallow land,” said Ashim, who has cultivated sunflowers on 2.13 hectares of the land of Manoharpur village in Kalapara Upazila this year as he plans commercial farming after last year’s harvest yielded almost 150 kg of sunflower seeds.
“We start sowing sunflower seeds right after harvesting Aman paddy. Some of us cultivate moong dal or mustard,” he said, adding that non-governmental organisation BRAC helped him with 12 kg of seeds worth Tk 36,000 plus Tk 24,000 cash.
The annual demand for cooking oil in Bangladesh is 2.4 million tonnes, according to the agriculture ministry. Almost 88 percent of the edible oil is imported. Bangladesh Bank data shows that the country imported edible oil worth Tk 2.53 billion in the fiscal year 2021-2022.
Currently, around 300,000 tonnes of edible oil is produced in Bangladesh from mustard, sesame, and sunflower seeds. The government took different initiatives aiming to produce 1 million tonnes of cooking oil, which is 40 percent of the total demand, domestically without compromising rice production by 2025.
Now the enthusiasm among farmers about sunflowers is shining a ray of hope on the possibilities of meeting the demand domestically to some extent. Also, sunflower cultivation in the unused saline lands in the coastal areas will not hamper rice farming. It means the farmers in these areas can cultivate sunflowers for their own need, or go commercial with extra yield.
The saline fallow lands in the coastal areas are quite promising for the cultivation of sunflowers and soybeans, believes Jashim Uddin, the director of a project on cooking oil crops under the Department of Agricultural Extension.
“Mustard is the common oil seed in our country followed by sunflower. It can be cultivated across the country but the coastal areas have the highest potential for a good yield. Those areas bear more salinity in the ground and Boro paddy farming is not possible there.
"In other farming fields, it is hard to get a chance to cultivate sunflowers as Boro paddy is produced there. Mustard farming isn’t a good option in the saline-prone fields, but soybean and sunflower are the correct choices.”
The officer explained that sunflower farming is better than soybean as edible oil can be produced easily from it. The farmers can consume sunflower oil after processing the seeds in the local oil factories. “But for soybeans, it is not possible to process in our country and get the oil.”
Kalipada Sarkar, a farmer in Khulna, cultivated sunflowers on a 0.13 hectare piece of land and harvested 126 kg of seeds, from which he extracted 36 litres of cooking oil for his family after edible oil prices shot up. He is keen to cultivate more sunflowers when the land is left to no use after Aman paddy farming due to its salinity.
Brotee Rani from the same area as Kalipada’s, said sunflower oil is “tasty”. “So we decided to cultivate (sunflowers) on a bigger land. The lands in our area provide a good yield of sunflowers.”
WILL SUNFLOWER FARMING BRING GOOD DAYS TO THE SOUTH?
At least 900,000 hectares of saline land is available at the coastal areas of Satkhira, Bagerhat, Jhalakathi, Pirojpur, Barguna, Patuakhali, Bhola, Chandpur, Laxmipur, Noakhali, Feni and Chattogram, according to the Department of Agricultural Extension. Most of these lands are either used to farm a single crop or are left barren.
If cultivated properly, the 900,000 hectares may yield 1.2 million to 1.3 million tonnes of oil seeds, said Project Director Jashim. If
They will make 400,000 to 450,000 tonnes of edible oil which will be equivalent to 16 percent of the total oil demand in the country.
“Already, 10 percent of the demand is produced locally and if we can produce 16 percent more, we can meet a total 26 percent of the edible oil demand,” he said.
This year, the farmers cultivated sunflowers in 14,700 hectares of land, he said. “The government aims to ensure sunflower cultivation at 34,600 hectares of land, including the coastal areas, by the 2024-2025 fiscal year. If this is done, only sunflowers will yield 53,400 tonnes of seeds which will produce 20,292 tonnes of edible oil.”
At least 1 million of the 2.8 million hectares of land in the southern and south-western parts of the country have salinity at different scales in them, according to the BRAC. Therefore, it becomes almost impossible to cultivate those lands in Robi and Kharip-1 farming seasons. The salinity in river water goes up to 25-30 DS/m during those periods.
“The lands in the coastal areas and also the groundwater are having more salinity in them due to global warming and rise in the sea-level. Also, cyclones and tidal waves are damaging the embankments leading to saline water infusing in the farm lands and hampering the natural agricultural production,” said Tousif Ahmed Qureshi, senior manager of BRAC Climate Change Programme.
Under the current circumstances, farmers will benefit from cultivating sunflowers, believe the agriculturalists.
"Usually, vast swathes of lands are left uncultivated after the harvest of Aman paddy. And around 1,200-1,300 hectares of land are used for farming watermelons. This year, we asked a few farmers to cultivate sunflowers on the aisles of the watermelon fields. Actually, if you can establish one crop, its production can be continued,” said Ashim Kumar Das, agriculture officer at Koyra in Khulna.
The farmers in the Upazila cultivated sunflower on 20 hectares of land last year and 90 hectares this time, according to him.
Although imported sunflower oil prices are more than double of most used soybean oil in Bangladesh’s markets, the marginal farmers in the coastal areas of Bangladesh do not get expected prices for their sunflower seeds.
“We don’t cultivate sunflowers much despite high yields because we are afraid that we won’t get customers,” said Kalipad of Khulna.
Project Director Jashim said the producers are not interested in locally produced sunflower seeds because they do not give as much oil as imported seeds do.
So, the government was planning to distribute 100 extractors among the farmers so that they can produce and use the oil themselves. “We’re also trying to link them up with the buyers.”
He hopes private firms will get interested in producing sunflower oil gradually.
Globe Edible Oil has been producing and marketing sunflower oil in Bangladesh for several years.
Its Managing Director Mamunur Rashid said they used to buy seeds from Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria but stopped after prices shot up due to the war in Europe while Bangladesh is facing a shortage of dollars that are required for imports.
Only 5 percent of the seeds collected by the company were locally produced, but the amount of oil from those seeds was low.
“And the colour of the pomace from these seeds is not so good.”