Days 2-4 24-26th November First Impressions of Shrimp production in Bangladesh

First impressions on the Shrimp Production in Bangladesh

Saturday I got sick and could only interview two aquaculture master students of the Bangladesh Agricultural University that are working for the SEAT project. They generally consider organic shrimp farming as a good alternative to conventional shrimp farming. Overall in the conventional shrimp industry they would recommend to control the farming area politically to ensure food security and environmental friendly production.

Particularly, they highlighted that in the summer season some of the areas farming shrimp are very saline, where no rice or vegetables can be grown, the reasons for this are plenty. It is only in the rainy season when it is sometimes possible to grow some vegetables. Therefore, if consumers would now suddenly stop buying shrimp, the social and economic implications in these areas would be disastrous.

They see advantages of organic shrimp in their environmentally-friendly production, as well as in the high level of security for the farmers, because they are engaging in one value chain, where their products are definitely bought, and the higher price paid to the farmer. For them a potential plus point of the shrimp production is integrated poly-culture, combining different types of products like shrimp, fish, rice with fruits and vegetables being also grown along the dikes or banks of the ponds.

As they gave me a lot of insights into the value chain of typical (conventional) shrimp production, I want to share this with you in a little story. As I am not able to do my research in the order of the value chain, this little story can help situate the different steps I will discover.

The story of Bangli; a shrimp born in Bangladesh

Bangli first saw light in this world in a little hatchery in the south of Bangladesh, in Cox’s Bazar in January. Some of the older shrimps told him stories about river, where they grew up years ago, before they were caught and brought to the hatchery. They said that it is today prohibited to catch baby shrimp in the rivers, to protect the local ecosystems. Now 80% of the shrimp is born in hatcheries and only 20 % caught in the wild. Bangli grew bigger and bigger before one day a big net caught him and the other shrimps and put them in a dark place where they were transported by car, bus (80% survive) or airplane (100% survive) the nursery in the southwest of Bangladesh – what a shaky experience. Here they stayed for some days to recover from the journey and get familiar with the local water, before being released into their new home: nice, green little lakes in traditional extensive shrimp farms. Here they grew and grew until they were about 4 month old. Some of his friends also lived in semi-saline water where they shared their space with rice and prawns. The farmers call this poly-culture production in “ghers”.
After 4 month Bangli had become a young man/woman and want to leave the pond and travel back to the sea. When the moon is right and the tides are high, then Bangli decided that the time was right to start his travel and he swam around the pond to find his way out. But the farmer had put traps in the pond and Bangli got trapped and couldn’t find his way out of this trap.

Early in the morning the farmer took the shrimp from the trap to a nearby shrimp market, where Bangli and his friends were sold to a salesman. From here a middleman from the processing farm bought Bangli and the other shrimp, and took them to the processing plant, where they were prepared for a long trip to Europe (50.07%), the USA, India or Japan, or for dinner in a middleclass Bangladeshi home (but only 3% are consumed locally). The shrimp from the processing plant are monitored by the National Fish Inspection and Quality Control Service to make sure that they are of a good quality, with no traces of pesticides or antibiotics. Once Bangli arrived after a long trip by boat to Europe, he entered the retail chain or foodservice chain and was sold to a supermarket from where he finally gets prepared in Munich by Frau Helga as a shrimp risotto with rice for her family of four (including father Hans, 12 year old Olga and her 8 year old brother Heinrich.

This presents just the very basic value chain that has to be broadened by the ingredients of food and chemicals, by transport, etc. Especially I will find out about the differences the Organic Value Chain has got compared to the Conventional and specify on this aspects.

*Numbers are from the SEAT Research report: Kruijssen, F., Kelling, I., Meen Chee, H., Jespersen, K. and Ponte, S. (2012): Value Chains of selected Aquatic Products form four Asian Countries (WP 5.1.)

Sunday 25. November

This Sunday morning I visited some freshwater (fw) prawn farms and talked to some farmers (Note the name Prawn refers to freshwater prawns which are farmed in Bangladesh – species Macrobrachium rosenbergii commonly known as the Giant Freshwater River Prawn – when the term shrimp is used this refers to marine shrimp species Penaeus monodon or Litopenaeus vannamei ). As fw prawns are not the focus of my research, I present you here only some small insights. Prawn are primarily ongrown in fresh water and are bigger in size and weight than shrimp. Most of the prawn farms are polyculture: they are used for cultivating rice, prawn and fish at the same time. Furthermore on the dikes of the ponds all kinds of vegetables and fruits are planted. Therefore they are considered as highly productive and profitable. The problem in this is that the rice farming can use some special pesticides and insecticides that can have a negative impact on the environment. The farmers I talked to were convinced that their aquaculture does not have a negative impact on the environment, at least no more than if they were doing other work. But all affirmed that they use some insecticide and pesticides. Whilst there I got the chance to see a prawn harvest.

Two extreme views on the Shrimp Industry (please enjoy with caution…)

In the afternoon I visited a journalist of the Daily Kaler Kantho, who wrote some articles and two books about the development of the shrimp industry. Listening to his stories I got to know all the dark side of the shrimp industry. Starting with land-grabbing in the first period where shrimp was especially promoted and very profitable, reaching to a period of violence, where especially the landless people and marginalized farmers were forced to leave and find new work in the activity of juvenile or post larvae (PL) shrimp catching from the wild because the shrimp farming is less work intensive than agriculture, to a more controlled system concerning the prohibition of the use of natural wild caught post larvae (PL) and some chemicals, but still with a lot of challenges in the water management system, environmental and social problems and the question of food insecurity. To my question whether he would recommend to a European consumer to eat Bangladesh shrimp, he only answered the following:

“We cannot go back. Nowadays in this area only shrimp production is possible due to the high level of salt in the water. So the question is impossible to answer. But my goal is that all people in the world can fulfill their basic needs. Do you think that the shrimp industry contributes to this?”

He pointed out, that government action is needed concerning the water and land management as well as small shrimp farmer cooperatives. He could unfortunately not give me any specific information about organic shrimp aquaculture, as he hadnt done any journalistic investigation about it until now – but he promised to do so.

Mon 26th November.

The Director of the National Fish Inspection and Quality Control Service accepted to talk with me today and I discovered a new perspective on the shrimp industry. This body controls shrimp quality across all the processing plants so as to ensure they are to a quality acceptable for export markets. For him, the shrimp industry represents a way of gaining access to foreign markets and provides a lot of jobs and possibilities for local people. The lack of education is, in his opinion, the main reason why sometimes bad pesticides are still used. To this end they are training farmers in best aquaculture practice, which up to now has had the participation of over 15,000 farmers. The organic certified system has, according to him, the advantages that (i) they are training their farmers; (ii) they provide some security associated with being a unique value chain, and (iii) the farmers face a low investment cost due to the fact that no pesticides, feed or fertilizer are allowed. He thinks that the extensive production of the Bangladesh Shrimp farmers is on average very close to being ” Organic” and that there is not really a harmful environmental impact.
In response to my prompting that different NGOs accuse the industry of poor labour conditions and endangering food security, he replied:

“The information on bad labour conditions is false. NGOs are sometimes like parasites. They visit a processing plant and find a child who brings some rice to his mother to eat and then tell everyone there would be child labour. This is not a well informed picture of the reality and it is not responsible. And as rice can be grown also, there is no problem of food security.” Due to this he added it is now prohibited for foreigners to visit processing plants without official permission.

Shrimp farming is a controversial subject; not only in Europe. As everyone only tells a part of the story often to suit their own agenda , however as always the truth must be somewhere in between these views. This reminds me to be cautious and not to believe everything that is said and claimed to be the truth.

I decided to visit a researcher in Khulna University to get a more ‘objective’ view on the subject. What I found was not a clearer view on the political, social and economic issues of the shrimp farming, but rather a natural scientists perspective, and a lot more interesting aspects, as well as a possible solution to many issues for the industry. I will write about this over the following days. Tomorrow I will travel to the shrimp farming area, where they practice both conventional and organic shrimp production alongside each other. I am excited to get my own picture of these production systems.

A Researchers view on Shrimp production

26.11. Dr. Khandaker Anisul Hug, Professor at Khulna University in the Fisheries and Marine Resource technology discipline, sees the Shrimp discussion in a more scientific and rational way. In his view the main purpose should be to find the suitable area for different types of production and use it for that in order to be efficient and provide in the end enough for everyone. The coastal areas are normally good for shrimp farming, because of the salt water and shrimp can only be produced in salt water (needs minimum 5 ppt, but 15-20 ppt is better for intensive aquaculture). Prawn in the opposite can be produced in fresh or slightly salted water ie brackish, that’s why its name is also the Fresh Water Prawn. As rice tolerates only a very little amount of salt, it can only be cultivated in areas which are suitable for this or in seasons where the salt level of the water reduces. This is in some areas in the rainy season the case and there crop rotation can be used and is already used in some cases where it is profitable and productive. According to Dr Hug the shrimp area should not be expanded, but the goal should be to increase the productivity in the suitable areas in an environmental friendly way. One possibility present for him are probiotics (like Lactobacillus), which are beneficial and not harmful bacteria that can increase the soil, water and feed quality. At the moment he is doing research on this.
In his view the main problem is the lack of information and education to and of the farmers, which as a consequence lead in some cases to irresponsible actions like the wrong use of chemicals and a poor water management. This has to be seen in combination with the fact that traceability of shrimp products is normally not provided – ie in the conventional supply and market chain it is impossible to find out, how and where the shrimp you are consuming was produced – which makes it very difficult to take general conclusions about this sector. Training is necessary to emphasis the importance of environmental friendly production and to enable the farmer to follow good and efficient farming practices. Moreover these subjects and broader environmental problems shouldin his view be integrated in the educational system to raise awareness.
Surprisingly he did not know anything about organic shrimp culture, which seems to be quiet unknown in Bangladesh- (However this could be due to the way the questions were asked and interpretted and what the term “Organic” means to different people) . But it is precisely these points which are considered as the strength of organic aquaculture: the training to the farmers, the organized, controlled and therefore traceable post harvest system and the environmental friendly way of production.

For now I got enough insight in the public discussion in Bangladesh on Shrimp and the following days I will find out about the organization of Organic and Conventional farming myself by visiting step by step the different value chains. I can already make two conclusions about my first days of investigation: first the shrimp industry is really complex and general conclusions are not easy to make and secondly everyone picks out the aspects he/she likes and that fit into his or her interest.

Photo © Loni Hensler