Farmers grow safe vegetables to protect health, environment

As Bangladeshi farmers carry baskets of eggplant, leafy red amaranth, cucumbers and squash of all shapes and sizes from their fields to be packaged at a local vegetable processing center, they also bring the personal satisfaction of providing healthy, pesticide-free food to their customers.

These farmers in Bogura District, northwestern Bangladesh, have chosen to learn to farm with natural pest control instead of synthetic pesticides. They have seen the negative effects of long-term use, abuse and overuse of pesticides on the health of farmers, consumers and the environment.

“We like to be healthy,” says farmer Kabir Hossain, who brought olives and ribbed gourds to the center on a Tuesday morning last October. “We would like to save our environment.” Too many farmers are harming the environment with pesticides that pollute the soil, the water and the air, he says.

"We like to be healthy. We would like to save our environment."

Kabir Hossain


In addition, farmers in the area, especially those who wear no protective gear when spraying pesticides, report eye irritation and burning, respiratory concerns, stomach acidity and renal problems. Customers too can be affected by food that contains too much pesticides, including vegetables that are sprayed on the same day they are sold at market.

Kabir Hossain weighs olives he brought to sell at the GUP processing center. MCC/Fairpicture photo/Fabeha Monir

Want to dig deeper?

Learn more about the topics discussed keep reading...
Learn more about the topics discussed in this article in an exclusive podcast interview with MCC Program Officer Jahangir Alam.

Overuse of pesticides happens because farmers operate on such a thin profit margin that they can’t afford to lose any crops to pests, says Jahangir Alam, MCC program officer. In addition, he says about half the farmers can’t read application instructions. They and others rely on the explanations of pesticides retailers, who benefit financially from its overuse.  

Hossain is one of 700 farmers who are growing pesticide-free or “safe food,” as it is commonly called. They are using new farming techniques that they learned from MCC’s development partners Grameen Unnayan Prokalpo (GUP) or Pollee Unnayon Prokolpo (PUP).  MCC’s agricultural experts in Bangladesh train GUP and PUP staff on these techniques, known as Integrated Crop Management, which also include making compost that repairs and builds soil health.

"Grounded in the unconditional love for God and for our neighbors, our faith motivates us to support development projects that accompany justice, equity and peace towards shalom — wholeness in people and our world."

Gregory Vanderbilt

Representative for MCC in Bangladesh

MCC support for development projects like this is based in its faith, says Gregory Vanderbilt, representative for MCC in Bangladesh. “Grounded in the unconditional love for God and for our neighbors, our faith motivates us to support development projects that accompany justice, equity and peace towards shalom -- wholeness in people and our world.”

PUP and GUP offer courtyard training sessions and grow demonstration plots, called technology hubs, where farmers can see the techniques in action and learn how to use them. By example, farmers then show their neighbors that, despite some challenges, they can make a living growing safe vegetables.  

“I observe that pesticides means … you are destroying everything,” says farmer Abdul Mojid, who knows of three people who collapsed while spraying pesticides. “I know that without pesticides, I am able to produce the crops. That’s why I stopped using the pesticides.” 

Abdul Mojid hoes in his eggplant field, while the colorful sticky traps and the clear pheromone traps eliminate insects.
Abdul Mojid hoes in his eggplant field, while the colorful sticky traps and the clear pheromone traps eliminate insects. MCC/Fairpicture photo/Fabeha Monir   

His fields, which are near the processing center, are not immune to bugs who want to munch on his crops. In his gourd fields, he has blue, white and orange bottles called sticky traps. The colors lure pests to the trap where they get stuck on the used motor oil that Mojid applied to the outside of the bottle. He also uses pheromone-infused bait that attracts male fruit flies into a clear bottle where they fall into the soapy water on the bottom and die. 

Cost saving is an important advantage of farming without chemicals, says Arefur Rahaman, MCC food security and livelihoods coordinator who researched insects for his master’s degree.  For 33 decimals (1/3 acre) of land, Mojid would spend 25,000-30,000 taka (US$211- $254) a year on pesticides, but to buy pheromone and sticky traps, he spends only 5,000 taka (US $42) a year. The cost savings make up for any losses farmers experience if vegetables do experience pest damage.  

Farming without pesticides works best when multiple farmers in the same community use it, says Rahaman. If one field uses pesticides and its neighbor does not, pests will converge on the unprotected field. However, if everyone is avoiding pesticides, the overall number of harmful insects will decrease over time and the useful insects will rebound.  

“One little ladybird beetle (ladybug) can consume up to 70-80 aphids in a day,” says Rahaman.  

Mojid also improves the health of his soil by making compost, a process that takes six to eight weeks. His adult daughter makes vermicompost by feeding manure to worms, which transform it into beneficial fertilizer. He makes tricho-compost, a mixture of seven readily available, natural ingredients plus Trichoderma, a fungus that controls soil-borne fungal diseases.  

Maksuda Khatun adds manure to her vermicompost frame. Each quarter of the frame has compost at a different stage. This way she continues to have compost available for use on the fields she shares with her father, Abdul Mojid. MCC/Fairpicture photo/Fabeha Monir 

“When I started to produce tricho-compost,” Mojid says, “I observed that this kind of compost is helping to increase the water-holding capacity of the soil.”  The plants also produce longer than they did before using the compost. He may still add some chemical fertilizer, but only after doing a soil test to see exactly what is needed – another practice MCC and GUP emphasize. 

Zakir Hossain adds water hyacinth to his growing pile of ingredients that he will use to produce tricho-compost for his home vegetable gardens. He also sells any extra compost to others. MCC/Fairpicture photo/Fabeha Monir 

Although farmers report a yield similar to what they would get with pesticides, marketing is a challenge because many customers don’t understand the value of safe vegetables. With MCC support, both organizations are trying different marketing approaches and carrying out community education projects to raise awareness of the health benefits.

At the processing center, which is run by GUP, Hossain says he gets paid a few more taka per kilo than he would get by selling at the regular market. The staff take care of cleaning, packaging and labeling vegetables, getting them ready to take to stores in Bogura.

At GUP’s processing center, Beauty Khatun places fresh produce, which has been washed, packaged and labeled, into containers that will be taken to stores in Bogura, Bangladesh, to sell. MCC/Fairpicture photo/Fabeha Monir 

The customer base that is willing to pay more for pesticide-free food tends to be educated and financially stable, says Rahaman, so GUP looks for stores that serve this demographic. So far, they have fresh vegetable displays set up in four stores that sell food and household supplies.  

“I think this quality is so good, and the price is reasonable for me,” says Abu Talha Enam, a young man who comes to buy cucumbers at the local Touch and Take store about three times each week. He works out at a gym, he says, so he also buys healthy vegetables.

Humayun Sarkar buys safe vegetables at a Touch and Take variety store in Bogura the same day the vegetables were harvested by GUP farmers. MCC/Fairpicture photo/Fabeha Monir 

Stores are preferable to outdoor markets where many farmers bring their produce because most wholesalers and retail customers care more about how the produce looks than its health benefits, says Alam. When the vegetables appear side by side, vegetables produced without pesticides tend to look less shiny or as big as those grown with pesticides and hormones. It is a hindrance that MCC staff are addressing.

Pop-up street market stands are PUP’s strategy of choice. Dr. Shamsuddin, who uses one name, says he has seen the negative health effects of pesticides in his patients, allowed PUP to start a market stand in his Bogura apartment building on Friday mornings. He advised his patients to switch to pesticide-free food and is encouraging his colleagues to promote safe foods, too. 

Customers buy pesticide-free vegetables from Nazrul Islam, PUP field organizer, at a stand set up on the ground floor of a Bogura apartment building on Friday mornings. MCC/Fairpicture photo/Fabeha Monir 

Customer Rini Islam says she prefers to buy safe vegetables, even if the ones at market look better on the outside. “It is helpful for our health. In comparison to the market, these vegetables are tasty and fresh.” 

Ainur Islam, left, who collected vegetables from farmers, and Nazrul Islam, PUP field organizer, sell pesticide-free vegetables at a stand set up on the ground floor of a Bogura apartment building on Friday mornings. MCC/Fairpicture photo/Fabeha Monir

To encourage more customers to think like Rini Islam, GUP and PUP hold community festivals and post billboards, among other activities, to teach the community about the value of safe agricultural produce. Both organizations, which also experiment with online marketing, know they need more public education and more sales outlets if farmers are to realize increased profit for their produce.  

Mojid says he will continue farming without pesticides because of the long-term benefits.

“Maybe it can give you more money sometimes,” he says. “Usually, I don’t care about the money. I only care about the environment and health.” 

Give where needed most

Every donation makes a difference.