Prioritizing food production over tobacco farming in Bangladesh


Bangladesh must ensure food and nutrition for the people and prevent an alarming increase in non-communicable diseases caused by tobacco consumption and production. In order to achieve that goal, reclaiming all lands occupied by tobacco and immediately shifting to food production and agroecological restoration of damaged landscapes is a priority. As a fertile riverine delta with biodiverse agrarian systems with rich indigenous knowledge of food production, it makes no sense to allow tobacco companies to abuse Bangladesh’s fertile soils for a crop that hardly benefits economically, rather costs hard with health and nutritional impacts on the nation.

Bangladesh has international obligations as well. As a signatory to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), Government of Bangladesh enacted the SMOKING AND TOBACCO PRODUCTS USAGE (CONTROL) ACT, 2005. Initially, it had the provision of providing options about giving loan for food crops production in Article 12 that was effective till 2010. In the “Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) (Amendment) Act, 2013 there is a recommendation for a guideline for agricultural land being used for tobacco production following the FCTC Article 17. A draft Tobacco Cultivation Control Policy, 2017 is already formulated; waiting for approval at the Ministerial level, giving priority to food production over tobacco and supporting tobacco farmers for alternative crops and livelihood.

Tobacco cultivation in Bangladesh started commercially since independence in 1971 by British American Tobacco Company (BATB) with Flue-Cured Virginia (FCV) variety and now covers more than 100,000 hectares of cropland and expanding continuously from one area to the other. It started with making use of the fertile soils in the northern Bangladesh. The plant thrived on the sandy, well-aerated and well-drained soils, especially during the cooler winter season. Over time, national cigarette companies emerged as players in specific markets, including the purchase of burley tobacco (air-cured or sun-dried tobacco for cigarettes sold in the United States) and the dark air or shade-cured tobacco (Jati and Motihari varieties) used in bidi (hand-rolled) cigarette manufacture, hookah paste, chewing tobacco, and other tobacco products for the national market (Farida Akhter, Daniel Buckles, Rafiqul Haque Titu, 2014).

tobacco to food crops

At present, the major cigarette companies are Dhaka Tobacco Industries (40% market share) and British American Tobacco Company (36% market share) according to WHO calculations, 2011 (WHO, n.d) . Other national tobacco companies are involved in both tobacco cultivation and cigarette-bidi production.

Tobacco is not an agricultural 

Tobacco is a non-food and non-fodder crop -- it is not even a raw material for an industry that is necessary for the people of the country. What it produces (cigarette, bidi, smokeless tobacco) are harmful and injurious to health. It is also not a ‘cash crop’ for farmers as the term commonly used to justify its production in fertile lands. It is one of the very few crops in the world entering the world trade entirely as a leaf. It is green from the planting to the harvesting time, with little change in its green colour. The company uses the slogan “Sobujer Somaroho” - (the abundance of green) as if it is an environmentally friendly crop. It has no biomass that feeds back to the soil. The leaves cannot be used as fodder for livestock. Cows and goats refuse to eat tobacco leaves. It causes the destruction of fish by polluting the water bodies. It has no economic and agroecological value in the local or domestic market unless causing environmental destruction and health hazards are considered ‘economic’ activities. Contrary to the idea of ‘free market’, it is a crop that must be sold in accordance with the terms and price set by the companies. Tobacco leaves have only one market, i.e. the tobacco companies and their agents who are interested only in the leaves; they grade leaves for quality and are the only authority to decide the price – a real case of monopsony. After harvest of the leaves, the rest of the plant remains on the ground and does more harm to the soil. No company takes any responsibility of the soil degradation. Thus, the introduction of tobacco, a non-native and ‘alien invasive plant species, in the biodiverse agrarian systems that adversely affect the habitats and degrades bioregions makes no sense; it invades economically, environmentally and ecologically causing enormous damage to food and nutrition of a still predominantly agrarian nation.


Over the last 25 years, international tobacco companies have faced increased regulation for tobacco farming; thereby needed to move to settings where regulation is weak and governments are more easily influenced (FAO, 2003). Bangladesh was found to be an easy access for BAT and other tobacco industry to produce Flue Cured Virginia (FCV) for the global market. Tobacco leaf exports started in 2004. The production of Virginia variety of tobacco during 2008-9 was 22,277 metric tons (BBS, 2010). Bangladesh's share in world tobacco trade is only 1.8 percent. Bangladesh exported tobacco leaves worth $55.2 million (about 3864 million Taka) in 2009. In comparison, the export of vegetables during 2008-9 was 8,945 million Taka. Export potentiality of food crops is much higher than tobacco.

Producing ‘Nicotine’ hazards!

Tobacco yield is the ‘leaf’ that contains Nicotine required for the production of tobacco products such as cigarettes, bidis, jarda, gul etc. Nicotine is a potent parasympathomimetic alkaloid found in the nightshade family of plants (Solanaceae) - made in the roots and accumulates in the leaves of the plants. It is water soluble and can enter via the skin. This toxic is absent in all other agricultural crops, thus the health hazards are serious and pose a distinct and different threat.

Tobacco cultivation is known to be the cause of Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS), which occurs through skin exposure to dissolved nicotine from tobacco leaves. Symptoms of GTS include weakness, headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, abdominal cramps, breathing difficulty, abnormal temperature, pallor, diarrhoea, chills, fluctuations in blood pressure or heart rate, and increased perspiration and salivation. Symptoms of GTS are similar to those induced by pesticide exposure or heat exhaustion, and to nicotine intoxication experienced by novice smokers (Mcbride & al, 1998). UBINIG longitudinal research on tobacco farmers working in the fields and those who were in touch with tobacco leaves found the commonly reported symptoms were weakness, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headache, abdominal pain, sweatiness, chills and increased salivation (UBINIG, 2015).

Growing Tobacco for Companies: A New Form of Economic Slavery

Tobacco production in Bangladesh and perhaps everywhere else is essentially a corporate-driven activity. The production arrangements by design trap rural farmers into a ‘contract’ with both national and transnational corporations that can best be described as a new form of economic slavery. The nature of the corporate contract is to secure a steady supply of tobacco leaves of a particular variety selected by companies for the manufacture of cigarettes and related tobacco products. The gradings and the standards are also set by companies.

Farmers do not approach any company for support to grow tobacco; rather farmers producing foods crops are ‘persuaded’ by the Tobacco companies with offers of “support” of inputs, seeds and most importantly marketing of products. Every tobacco grower is a ‘farmer’ who produce agricultural crops and wants to remain in their job. Unfortunately, in the absence of support from the Department of Agricultural Extension, the farmers become easy prey to the allurement tactics of the tobacco companies. The company needs a vast amount of land for tobacco farming; they trap small and middle farming holders through company cards. In the local areas Company Card holders are called ‘Card dhari’ (Card Holders) or ‘chukti boddho’ (Contract Growers) growers. Company Card holders can also subcontract other farmers to grow tobacco. UBINIG research in three major tobacco growing areas shows that tobacco is produced mainly by landless tenant farmers (contracted by Card holders), the rest are small (owning less than 2.5 acres) and large landowners (owning more than 7.5 acres). Roughly two-thirds of all tobacco growers are under contract with companies, while the remainders are bound to companies indirectly through purchase arrangements with contract holders and landowners (Farida Akhter, Daniel Buckles, Rafiqul Haque Titu, 2014, p. 154).

Moreover, tobacco cultivation needs the use of women and children as family labour without counting the cost of their labour. Women’s labour is very much crucial at the time of curing. They spend the sleepless night for over 70 hours at stretch to make sure that the leaf curing is perfect for grades to be good.

Farmers continue tobacco farming for compelling but illusive reasons. Compelling because once they start tobacco production, it’s hard to get out of the trap. It is illusive because the lumpsum ‘cash’ they get from companies, a guarantee of inputs and market and the holding of Company Card creates an illusion of economic returns despite the fact that the cost of family labour, health degradation and degradation of the soil are not included. The price of inputs provided by the company is deducted from payment. It soon leads to pauperization. The Company Card system is the Debt Trap and once the farmer is in it is very difficult to get out of tobacco production. The illusion soon disappears once they have to spend a lot of money for treatment of health problems.

At the same time lack of support for food production by the Department of Agriculture Extension discourages farmers to remain in food production as they often experience lack of input support, price fluctuations and market support. Tobacco companies can easily take advantage of the situation.

Damaging Impact on Food crops

Two-thirds of the population in Bangladesh depends directly or indirectly upon agriculture, while nearly 25% of the gross national product comes from this sector. Bangladesh soil is the greatest natural resource and more than 60% of the land area is under agricultural production (Rahman H. , n.d.). The cropped areas are divided as single, double, triple and current fallow area. As of 2008-2009, the total cropped land is 35,614,000 acres. The triple cropped area is 3,158,000 acres, the double-cropped area is 9677 acres, the single cropped area is 6786 acres and current fallow land is 1171 acres and the net cropped area is 19621 acres (BBS, Year book of Agricultural Statistics of Bangladesh, 2009). Tobacco is grown in the double and triple cropped areas.

That means the land which is occupied for tobacco cultivation in the winter season (from October to March/April) could have been used for growing winter vegetables and lentil crops and for Aus rice crops in the early summer. Tobacco grown in the winter season replaces at least 20 to 22 food crops including major food crops such as boro (winter) rice, potato, mustard, wheat, pulses and vegetables.

food crops

For tobacco and its replacement of food crops, two cropped areas mean primarily Rabi season (November to March for crops such as Boro Rice, wheat, Maize, Potato, pulses, vegetable, oil seeds etc.) and Kharif-I season (April to July for Aus, growing Jute, Maize, pulses, vegetables). So in terms of seasons and land areas covered, tobacco plays a significant role in replacing food and other important agricultural crops such as Jute. Pulse and spices and condiments cultivation have reduced, while wheat and jute cultivation also has been affected.

Tobacco was cultivated on 1.15 lakh acres of land in 2015-16, according to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. The main difference between the other crops and tobacco in the cropped area is that the later affects the land for the entire year even after it is harvested. The land is not ‘free’.

In terms of statistics at the national level, the land coverage under tobacco is apparently less significant compared to other crops. But since tobacco moves from one area to the other, after causing depletion of land fertility, replacing food crops directly in the winter season, and indirectly many crops by overlapping with sowing or harvesting season.

No cereal crop such as rice or wheat can be planned in the tobacco growing area because it will clash with sowing and harvesting time. The more land areas are cultivated by tobacco in the pulse and spice, potato and sugarcane growing areas, the less will be the level of production. According to a study by Bangladesh Agricultural Institute of Mymensingh, it was found that there is a yearly production deficit of 250,000 metric tons. The yearly production is 420,000 metric tons. Newspaper reports show the yearly import of pulses is 260,000 metric tons at an expense of foreign exchange 1200 billion takas [ Deshe daler ghat ti bochore 2 lakh 50 hajar ton, Daily Ittefaq, 19 March 2011]. This is due to decrease in pulse production in the tobacco growing areas.


Among the various agricultural crops, rice is grown as the major food crop occupying 76% of the total cropped land (BBS, Yearbook of Agricultural Statistics, 2005) in three major seasons - Aus, Aman and Boro. Wheat is also part of the staple food grown in winter crop season in the dry zone areas of the country.

Tobacco means no food crop for the year

It appears from the crop calendar that the tobacco production matches with rabi (winter) season with some overlapping with the previous crop season Kharif-2 and the follow-up crop of the Kharif – 1 season. Pulse, mustard, other oilseeds, winter vegetables have no place in the field for cultivation. Tobacco does not allow any other crops to be grown as a companion crop in mixed culture. The broad leaves of tobacco cover the entire space and suppress everything. Even there is no scope for any uncultivated food plants to grow. Tobacco directly competes with boro rice for season and space.

Consequently, tobacco does not only compete with other crops in one season but also it blocks the land for two other seasons and the crops. A simple illustration of replacement of crops is shown in the figure below:

food crops map

Need more food, not Tobacco

In recognition of the adverse effects of tobacco on food production as well environment and health, Bangladesh government has already formulated a Tobacco Cultivation Control Policy, 2017 following the directives of the Article 17 and 18 of FCTC with provisions of support to farmers for alternative crops, particularly the food crops. The government has declared to make Bangladesh a tobacco-free nation by 2040 and thereby sets a target to reduce tobacco cultivation in stages. According to the draft policy, farmers will be provided with easy loans and special incentives for fertiliser, seeds and other farm inputs and equipment to help them switch from tobacco cultivation to other crops. Farmers will also be extended support to market their food crops so they can get fair prices for their produce (Parvez, July 9, 2017). The policy highlights the multisectoral approach with inter-ministerial collaboration and cooperation to reduce tobacco cultivation. The policy also aims to increase production of food crops by freeing farmlands from tobacco cultivation, which rose to a 29-year high of 1.27 lakh acres in 2014-15 [ see figure below]

tobacoo cultivation

[source: The Daily Star, July 9, 2017]

Reduction of tobacco cultivation is also necessary because it not only takes away the land for more than one season, it also takes away the inputs necessary for food production. Tobacco cultivation requires a huge amount of fertilizers, pesticides, seed, irrigation water and labour. These are the same inputs which are also required for Boro rice cultivation and other winter crops. The seeds of a variety of tobacco are provided by the company, of course at a price. So tobacco growers do not keep any seed by themselves. They are always dependent on the company for the supply of seeds.

The tobacco growers receive fertilizers through the company card from the companies themselves, (the price deducted afterwards). The company collects the fertilizer from the dealers of Bangladesh Chemical Industries Corporation (BCIC), the largest public-sector corporations under the Ministry of Industry. The Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) has the responsibility of providing fertilizers to the farmers of Robi crops.

Fertilizer accounts for between 20 to 30 percent of the cash costs of tobacco. Undoubtedly, the fertilizer taken away from food crops may lead to substantial decrease in food production, particularly rice production. Similarly, it takes away the services of irrigation and other inputs that were available for food production.


In the major tobacco growing areas, there is hardly any village left for food production. All cultivable land is converted to tobacco cultivation, making the farmers dependent on the market for food supply. Villages are turned from food surplus to food deficit villages leading to food shortage and malnutrition of the people, particularly children.

UBINIG Research: Shifting to Food production

In the UBINIG research (UBINIG, From Tobacco to Food Production, 2010), the initiatives in three tobacco-growing areas Kushtia, Bandarban and Cox’sbazar, to discuss the possibilities of shifting out of tobacco was immediately welcomed by the small and middle tobacco growers and particularly those without company cards. The villages where tobacco is grown extensively have lost crop diversity, particularly the food crops. However, the replacement of tobacco by substitute food crops involved a lot of issues including i. land selection, ii. Cropping plan, iii. Seed management and Land preparation.

The need was not only to select ‘substitute’ crops of tobacco but also to devise a cropping pattern round the year matching the environmental and ecological conditions. Generally, tobacco is harvested during mid-March to end April. At this stage, the farmers go for the planning of the next season and crops. Those farmers who like to continue tobacco production they plan for growing Aus paddy: Aus paddy occupies the land during mid-June – mid-September.

Tobacco seeds are sown during mid-October – mid-April. The tobacco farmers follow a cropping pattern such as Tobacco – Aus paddy – Tobacco or Tobacco – fallow land – Tobacco. In the later pattern the land, in fact, remains fallow for about four months and tobacco becomes monocrop cultivation for the entire year. Clearly, tobacco, as discussed above, has an impact on food crops round the year.

Farmers in favour of growing food crops, cropping designs were made for this ‘transition’ period included crops for summer and monsoon season. The crops selected for this period are termed as ‘Transition crops’. The main transition crops for Cox’s Bazar included: leafy amaranths, leaves of radish, coriander, okra, bitter gourd, yard-long bean etc. The main transition crops for Kushtia region included: leaf amaranth leafy radish, spinach, cabbage and coriander.

The crops grown for substituting tobacco in the rabi season are called substitute crops. The main substitute crops for Cox’s Bazar included potato, French bean, Felon, sweet gourd, chilli, Egg plant, Ground nut and tomato. The main substitute crops for Kushtia included potato, wheat, maize, garlic, Masur (lentil), mustard and chilli.

The main demand of the farmers was to get the institutional support that can provide food crop seeds. The farmers have lost seeds of winter crops by remaining involved in tobacco cultivation for a long time. They, in fact, do not have any seed in their hands. Accordingly, the farmers have been demanding the seed support from the beginning of the program. The seed support was provided from Nayakrishi Seed Network (NSN), a biodiversity-based farming system of Nayakrishi Andolon and from the local source [see more about Nayakrishi at].

Since the start of tobacco cultivation and its gradual expansion without any regulation, the acreage and production of food crops declined in the research areas. The production of vegetables became negligible. The diversity of crops was reduced. Only rice and some vegetables are grown in the Kharif season. The farmers have lost the tradition of maintaining seeds as food crops were not grown anymore. In case of urgent need for food production, the farmers bought seed from the market mainly High yielding varieties (HYV) and hybrids. In this situation, a holistic approach was needed to invigorate the base of crop variability and diversity (Mollah, 2011).

UBINIG research following biodiversity-based and ecological food production showed very good results within two years of shifting to food crops. The farmers have produced a combination of food crops substituting tobacco in the winter season in the three research areas. Their results were:

Table 1: Gross and Net Return on combination crops of food

Areas Crops Total Cost including labour Gross Return Net Return
Kushtia Potato+Maize+Lentil+coriander Tk. 1,03,688 per hectare Tk. 2,16,927 Tk. 1,13,239
Cox’sbazar Potato+French bean+lentil Tk. 99,073 per hectare Tk. 2,46,172 Tk. 1,47,099
Bandarban Potato+French bean+lentil Tk. 1,01,142 per hectare Tk.2,88,271 Tk. 1,87,129

Farmers in the research areas also calculated the loss of food crops due to tobacco. This was done in a meeting of farmers based on their knowledge of crops and the market price in their local areas. The following estimate based on the average yield and existing market price is presented in the following table:

Table 2: Estimated return from different substitute crops of tobacco

Area Land under tobacco production (acre) Number of varieties of food crops lost Market price of food crops (Taka) equivalent in USD
Lama, Bandarban 10,090 21 110 million 1.57 million
Alikodom, Bandarban 5,120 23 378.44 million 5.40 million
Chakaria, Cox’s Bazar 4,283 24 298.64 million 4.26 million
Daulatpur, Kushtia 20,000 7 142 million 2 million

Marketing of food crops

In Bangladesh, the lack of policies to support farmers for marketing the food crops becomes a big hindrance for remaining in the food production. Usually, the bumper food crops lead to farmers earn less as has been seen in the case of potato, jute, rice and different vegetables. Farmers living in remote areas face even more difficulties in the marketing of their produce due to transportation problems. The cold storage facilities are also inadequate and are not affordable for the poor and marginal farmers. Support to farmers with the marketing of their produce is therefore essential for sustained shifting out of tobacco.

Farmers have come up with suggestions to keep livestock and to carry out non-farm activities in order to sustain the income. The shift to food production may not show cash income but makes the household's food secure, healthy and happy, i.e. without any tension.


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