Food production in Bangladesh has gone up by three to five times what it was at the inception of the country 48 years ago. It is among the top-ranking countries in the production of 12 agricultural products and yet the number of undernourished people has increased by 400,000. Half the expectant mothers in the country still suffer from anaemia and people’s daily dietary energy intake does not even reach the minimum global standards.
These facts were revealed in the Food and Agriculture (FAO) report, ‘State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World’, the report on global agriculture statistics, and the global hunger index report prepared by two international development agencies. According to these reports, though food production has increased and new food products have been added to the food list, this fails to meet the requirement.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said Bangladesh has shown progressive improvement in dietary energy intake over the past 20 years. In 1997, a Bangladeshi's average food intake was 2285 kilocalories, which now stands at 2514. However, among the South Asian countries, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives and Bhutan have a higher dietary intake than Bangladesh.
Agriculture minister Abdur Razzak has said, “We are focussing on nutritious agricultural produce in our food production planning. We are increasing production of nutrition-enhanced rice, potatoes and fruit. We are also taking measures to ensure these food products are safe. We hope that the state of nutrition improves further.”
FAO 2019 statistical report states that in 1997, 83 per cent of Bangladesh’s dietary energy intake was from food grains, that is, rice, lentils and wheat. Most of these were carbohydrates with lower nutritious content. In 2017, 80 per cent of the food energy came from food grain, too. In industrially developed countries, half of food energy comes from nutritious food products like fish, meat, eggs and milk. Bangladesh lags far behind.
However, director of Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (BARC), Monirul Islam, said that one of the main reasons of undernourishment is lack of awareness concerning food. People consume more rice and bread. The state of nutrition would improve if they consumed more of the vegetables, fish, eggs and milk readily available in the market. He said, before poultry was reared and vegetables grown in every household. There were fruit trees. This must be increased for the sake of having nutritious food. In cities, there can be rooftop gardens.
The FAO Global Hunger and State of Nutrition Report 2019 stated that the number of people with acute and medium hunger is gradually decreasing. Acute hunger is when a person does not get more than one meal a day. In 2017 there were 17.8 million people suffering from acute hunger. This fell by 1 million in 2018. However the number of undernourished people has gone up by 400,000 from 2017 to 2018. And half the expectant mothers in the country suffer from anaemia.
Experts say another reason for the poor state of nutrition in the country is that Bangladesh is not even in the first 100 countries when it comes to children’s consumption of milk and meat. The people of Finland daily consume 361 ml of milk and in Sweden this is 355 ml. In Bangladesh the daily average consumption of milk per person is 33.7 ml. It is even worse where meat consumption is concerned. In meat consumption, Bangladesh ranks 172th among 173 countries. India is at the bottom of the list as the majority of the people there do not eat beef due to religious reasons. The people of Hong Kong consume 419.6 grams of meat daily, Australians 318.5 grams while Bangladesh’s per head daily meat consumption is 11.25 grams.
Food inequity had increased in the country, with the number of obese persons increasing due to imbalanced diet. FAO’s 2019 global agricultural report said that in 1997 obese persons over 18 years of age totalled 1.1 per cent of the population. In 2017 that increased to 3.4 per cent, that is, a three-fold increase in 20 years.
Professor of Dhaka University’s Nutrition and Food Science Institute, Najma Shaheen, told Prothom Alo, “We are only concerned about how much food is being consumed and produced. But we are not concerned about what we are eating, how much we are eating and how much we should eat. Agricultural production should meet nutrition demands. Food has to be safe too.”
Concerns over rice and wheat
Experts say that there are apprehensions about the production of Bangladesh’s main food grain, rice. Over the past 8 years Bangladesh has been claiming to be self-sufficient in rice production. But when disaster strikes, around 2 to 5 per cent of the crops are destroyed and a food shortage emerges. In the 2007 cyclones Sidr, there was a 2 million metric tonne shortfall of rice. In 2017, the sudden floods in haor led to a 600,000 to 1 million shortfall in rice production. In both those years, the price of rice shot up and Bangladesh was on the list of countries at food risk.
The second main food grain consumed in the country is rice and this is mainly imported. The annual wheat production in the country is 1 million to 12.2 million metric tonnes. Over the past two years the fungal disease blast has seen a fast decrease in production, though people have changed their food habits and are turning more towards bread and wheat. This fiscal Bangladesh may need to import 6 million metric tonnes of wheat, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Globally, wheat production between 2007 and 2011 fell due to climate change and so wheat prices increased. Bangladesh too could not meet its wheat procurement target at the time. The price of flour soared.
However, director general of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) KAS Morshed, speaking to Prothom Alo, said, there is no fear of any food crisis in the country. Production of the main crops is good. And the economy is strong enough for the government to import the required amount. “But we have to put emphasis on the production of nutritious food. That calls for increased use of technology and research in agriculture,” he added.
* This report appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir