• Monday, Feb 24, 2020
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Potato glut: Only more exports can absorb the surplus

  • Published at 10:34 pm February 28th, 2019
Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Russian market not resumed yet, government goes for action plan one more time

Bangladesh’s potato woes seem never-ending. 

As the seventh largest producer of the tuber crop in the world, Bangladesh is still struggling hard in offering potato growers a tangible solution to the yearly market glut. 

Each year farmers in the country produce in excess of 10 million metric tons (MT) of potato with at least two million metric tons in exportable surpluses. 

But since Bangladesh lost one of its most potential export markets in Russia due to shipping diseased potatoes, both government and exporters have failed to revive the export supply line over the past four years.

Against this backdrop, the ministry of agriculture held a stakeholders meeting on Wednesday, deciding to form a committee mandating it to come up with an action plan on how to increase exports of potato, the world’s fourth largest food crop after maize, wheat, and rice.

Interestingly though, people tracking the  potato trade recalled that right after Russia’s imposing a temporary ban on potato imports from Bangladesh back in early 2015, the government then had also formed an 11-strong committee to explore an action plan. But years later, nothing fruitful yielded, necessitating another meeting, another committee, and another action plan.       

Exporters, scientists, government functionaries present at Wednesday’s meeting, held at the behest of Agriculture Minister, Dr Muhammad Abdur Razzaque, told the Dhaka Tribune yesterday that Bangladesh’s yearly potato exports crossed a 0.1 million metric ton (MT) ceiling back in FY2013-14, plummeting to 53,000 MT last year.  

Manzurul Hannan, Managing Director of Hortex Foundation, however, pointed out a positive development during the same period on the potato front. “Though we couldn’t resume exports of fresh potatoes to the Russian market, last year our exporters fetched three million US dollars by exporting potato flakes and crackers to various countries.” 

Hannan, also a former Director General of the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE), said if the infrastructural setups like accredited labs are put in place and exporters follow best practices, the export of fresh potato would surely pick up.  

Director General of Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, Dr Abul Kalam Azad, a meeting participant, told this correspondent that the meeting entrusted the ministry secretary with the responsibility of forming a committee soon, so that it can come up with an action plan.

The meeting, he said, emphasized on immediately developing accredited lab facilities and asked exporters to maintain good agricultural practice (GAP) so that disease-struck potatoes are not shipped to export destinations.

Ferdousi Begum, Managing Director of Ferdous Biotech, and founding secretary of Bangladesh Potato Exporters Association, who exports potato to Brunei, blamed it on a section of dishonest exporters, for whom, she recalled “We lost the Russian market at a time when Russians had just started showing interest in importing more potatoes from Bangladesh.” Some 26 export containers meant for Russia were found to be filled with brown rot disease infested potatoes,” she recalled.  

Russia has a demand of 26 million MT of potato annually with a shortage of 5 million MT, said market sources, pointing out that even if the total volume of Bangladesh’s exportable surplus is dispatched to Russia that would not meet half of Russian demand.   

Bangladesh exported more than 20,000 MT of potato to Russia—out of a total of 103,000 MT in FY2013-14—according to the agriculture ministry. In 2015, Russia stopped importing from Bangladesh suggesting Bangladesh upgrade its phytosanitary system, security measures to prevent the use of fake phytosanitary certificates, and proper inspection at ports to ensure shipment of safe agricultural produce.

Addressing the annual general meeting of Bangladesh Cold Storage Association last month, Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi said surplus potatoes have to be exported but for that to happen, production quality must be maintained. 

Farmers harvested over 11 million MT of potato this fiscal, planting the tuber crop on 528,000 hectares of land, according to DAE estimates.

Another potato trader, Syed Nazrul Islam Faruque, told Dhaka Tribune that Bangladeshi potato exporters are exploring different markets from Sri Lanka to Malaysia, from Singapore to Brunei, but Russia had been the most potential one and “we must regain the lost market.”

“Even Nepal is a potential destination for Bangladeshi potato but government needs to engage with its Nepalese counterpart to facilitate the export line, since currently, India is getting duty-free access but Nepal imposes duty on Bangladeshi potato exports,” said Faruque.