With its current stock, Bangladesh is well poised in meeting the demand up to the next harvesting season, says BRRI
In a year when many countries are worried about their food security due to a prolonged pandemic scenario, Bangladesh has fared quite well. It has ensured a higher production volume of its staple – rice – surpassing the previous year’s yield record.
Yet, the Food Ministry is now considering importing rice, largely due to the Food Directorate’s failure in procuring enough grain from farmers to replenish a fast depleting food stock.
Against a sanctioned procurement volume of nearly two million tons of paddy and rice, the food department could buy only half a million tons till Sunday. The four-month procurement season finishes at the end of this month. Experts fear the food department will not be able to meet even half of the procurement target.
Against this backdrop both the ministers of agriculture and food, and their respective ministry secretaries, joined a galaxy of food security experts and related government department heads in a three-hour webinar brainstorming on what would be the best options rather than turning to importing rice to meet a perceived stock shortfall.
Experts from the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) gave statistics that show, with its current stock, Bangladesh is well poised in meeting the rice demand of its 170 million population up to the next harvesting season, which is November-December, 2020. They even estimate an additional five million tons of rice availability in the country beyond the next harvesting season when farmers will reap Aman later this year.
Agriculture Minister Dr Mohammad Abdur Razzaque is of the opinion that the option of importing rice should be considered as a last resort.
He said if the food department does not get much of a response from rice millers in supplying grain for public granaries at the offered rate of Tk36 a kilogram, the Food Ministry may think of increasing the offer margin to Tk38, so that the government can internally procure its targeted rice volume and keep the government’s food reserve strong.
Experts say that a more proactive procurement drive on the part of the food department and ministry concerned, would help save the country precious foreign currency reserves otherwise spent on meeting fat import bills.
They say the government allocated money for almost two million tons of rice procurement, which would not only help boost rice reserves in public granaries but also inject money into the rural economy where farmers are supposed to get this price benefit offered by the government.
The food department’s failure to buy paddy directly from farmers and its heavy dependence on the whims of rice millers has resulted in a situation where the Food Ministry already took, in principle, a prime ministerial nod of approval for importing rice from abroad.
In their defence, both the food minister and the secretary said as farmers have got good prices for their Boro rice in the open markets, they are not interested in selling their produce to the government’s food procurement centres and millers are also offering higher prices.
But experts note that if the food department made an early procurement drive going directly to farmers’ doors, as they do in the Indian state of West Bengal, then it could enrich its food stock and help farmers get the price benefits too. By the time the food department went to the market for procurement, many farmers had already sold their paddy to middlemen.
Food Minister Sadhan Chandra Majumder reasoned that importing wouldn’t be a bad option either considering an anticipated crop loss in Aus and Aman seasons owing to a nationwide prolonged flood situation.
Recalling previous experience of market glut by cheap rice imports in the aftermath of the 2017 Haor flash floods, Agriculture Minister Razzauqe rightly pointed out that the import option should be a choice of last resort. That decision has to be taken giving due consideration to domestic production, the market, and the supply and stock situations.
After two million tons of rice got lost in 2017 flash floods, the government allowed rice imports with zero tariff resulting in flooding the local market with over four million tons of rice, mostly from India, thereby dampening the rice market in Bangladesh.
Experts on Sunday cautioned again any recurrence of that situation and emphasized stamping out graft and inefficiencies in the food department’s procurement system.
No shortage of rice in the country
The BRRI reports presented in the webinar, showed that there is no shortage of rice in Bangladesh this year.
It said that the last rice harvest in May this year (Boro) was over 20 million tons, which is nearly four percent higher than what farmers produced in the previous season.
According to BRRI estimates, the country will still have over five million tons of rice in hand after November, when the next rice season will start providing fresh yields.
BRRI also noted that buoyed up by good prices in the market, farmers have gone for sowing rice in more cultivable areas, thereby expanding the acreage of Aus paddy. If the floodwaters continue to recede fast, prospects of a good Aman crop are always there.
Food Secretary Nazmanara Khanum also agreed that the current stock of over 1.2 million tons of grain in government silos would soon grow by 200,000 tons of wheat in the import pipeline. Together with rice, that volume should be enough to meet the government’s current food-for-poor programs.