Experience in the last couple of years has shown that imports of onions from sources other than India did not prove to be a permanent solution in ensuring adequate supplies of the cooking ingredient and in tackling the crisis
Last year, the government went through the worst experience in regulating onion prices that had been caused by the sudden imposition of an export ban of the bulb by the Indian government.
Prices of onions per kilogram soared to as high as Tk250 in local kitchen markets last year. This was owing to a high dependence on a single country (India) to procure the bulb, as about 90% of imported onions are sourced alone from neighbouring India.
Ironically, the ban was repeated just after a year on September 14, pushing prices up to Tk120 per kg in domestic kitchen markets.
The situation this time, however, is somewhat under control as the government has been cautious and took measures prior to the ban to import onions from alternative sources.
Experience in the last couple of years has shown that imports of onions from sources other than India did not prove to be a permanent solution in ensuring adequate supplies of the cooking ingredient and in tackling the crisis.
Increasing domestic production to meet local demand could be a viable option with regard to onions, according to experts, who point to the success in attaining self-sufficiency in cattle rearing.
Bangladesh currently has a higher supply of cattle than demand. This has been made possible by investment in cattle farming.
Agriculturalists and agri-economists say it is pretty much possible for the country to become self-sufficient in meeting domestic demand for onions as well.
In moving towards self sufficiency in onion production, Bangladesh has to look to the demand and supply side of the key cooking ingredient.
“Since there is a gap between demand and supply of onions, we can reduce import dependence by increasing production capacity,” Quazi Shahabuddin, former director general of BIDS, told Dhaka Tribune.
"There is scope to increase the production capacity. We can concentrate on cultivation of high yielding varieties of onions as well as expanding acres ," Shahabuddin added.
Demand and supply of onions
According to data from the Spice Research Centre (SRC), Bangladesh annually consumes about 26.25 lakh tonnes of onions.
Against the demand, the country produced 23.76 lakh tonnes in 2019, according to data from the Department of Agriculture Extension (DAE).
Since onions are a perishable item and post harvesting waste is about 25% to 30%, net production generally stands at 17.82 tonnes, which means Bangladesh needs to import another 11-12 lakh metric tonnes.
As per Bangladesh Bank data, in FY19 Bangladesh imported 10.07 lakh tonnes of onions, mostly from India.
How to increase production
As of now, most farmers are cultivating onions with traditional methods even as they are planting medium yielding varieties of the bulb.
Experts have suggested introducing High Yield Variety (HYV) seeds and technology on a massive scale.
“First HYV onion seeds and technology should be made available to farmers in an appropriate period of time to increase the production of onions,” said Md. Lutfur Rahman, former Research Director of BARI.
On the other hand, the existing seeds and cultivation system has to be replaced by HYV and new technology, suggested the agriculturalist.
BARI has so far developed six varieties of onions. Among them, two varieties, BARI Piaz-1 and BARI Piaz-4, are for the winter season, while BARI Piaz-2, BARI Piaz-3, BARI Piaz-5 and BARI Piaz 6 are suited for summer.
Based on the variety, the production capacity of these species is a minimum of 16 tonnes and a maximum of 23 tonnes per acre.
Besides, the government should monitor onion cultivation to control pests and protect the crops from damage, said Rahman.
On the other hand, it has to identify new areas, where onion cultivation is viable and profitable.
“Expanding onion cultivation is a key to increasing production and, to this end, the government has to take steps to bring more land under cultivation. About one lakh hectares of land in the north-east, especially the Sylhet region, remains uncultivated during the crops season and must be used for onion cultivation,” Md Hamim Reza Chief Scientific Officer, SRC, Bogura said.
After the identification of new areas, the government has to impart necessary training and provide technical assistance to farmers to encourage them in taking up onion farming, added the scientist.
In addition, intercropping is another option for increasing production of onions, for which the country already has the technology.
“Onions can be intercropped with sugarcane, arums, chili, ginger and turmeric and other items during the initial growth stage depending on climatic condition. But in intercropping additional fertilizer should be applied so that other plants do not suffer from nutrient deficiency," maintained Hamim.
With proper information relating to demand, the government could set targets to bring more land under onion cultivation, the expert suggested.
According to the RSRC, Bangladesh has to increase production by 30% to meet the local demand from domestic sources.
As per DEA data, in FY20 onions were cultivated on 2.16 lakh hectares of land, contributing to the production of 23.76 lakh tons. The average production per hectare of land was 11 tones.
Low cost fund for farmers
To encourage cultivation of onions, the government has to provide flexible loans at 4% and ensure that farmers are getting enough loans, suggested Hamim.
On the other hand, the government has to provide technical support on onion storage so that farmers get better and fair prices.