Exported products now on the import list

Bangladesh was self-reliant on potato production and had a surplus. So, potatoes were exported to 16 countries, and exports even hit a record 200,000 tonnes three years ago. But it is past now as the country for the first time exported potatoes to meet the growing demand.

Like potatoes, several agricultural products including green chillies, tomatoes and carrots are being increasingly exported, while exports of those are falling gradually.

According to data from the National Board of Revenue (NBR), 98,731 tonnes of potatoes were imported at a cost of 15.7 million US dollars in the 2023-24 fiscal while 12,352 tonnes of potatoes were exported over this period, and that brought about 3.8 million US dollar home.

Experts and exporters recommended improving market management and preserving systems amid the growing import of potatoes, and once it is done, there will be no necessity to import many agricultural products like potatoes and that will also ensure more exports and fair prices.

From export to import

Bangladesh ranked seventh in potato production. The country never imported potatoes over the past 52 years until the 2022-23 fiscal since independence, and potato seeds were imported back then, according to data from the National Board of Revenue (NBR) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

However, the commerce ministry decided to permit the import of potatoes on 30 October 2023 to keep the market stable amid the skyrocketing prices of potatoes. Import of potatoes started commercially for the first time on 2 November 2023 via Hill, Sona Masjid, Burimari and Benapole land ports.

The Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) permitted businesses importing 530,000 tonnes of potatoes in the 2023-24 fiscal. According to data from NBR, about 98,000 tonnes of potatoes were imported at a cost of 15.7 million US dollars in the 2023-24 fiscal, and import cost including duty was about Tk 30 per kg, while imported potatoes were sold for Tk 48-55 per kg.

The DAE, however, said production is on the rise despite the growing import of potatoes. According to the DAE, 10.9 million tonnes of potatoes were produced in the 2023-24 fiscal. As 15 per cent of potatoes are wasted in the process from field to marketing, the actual amount will be about 9.3 million tonnes, and that nearly equals the demand. But, cold storage owners said potato production was less in the last fiscal.

Like potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and green chillies are being imported. Once carrots and tomatoes were imported in low volume during the off-season, but imports have been on the rise. Green chillies saw a similar condition. When prices soar the government is opening imports to control the market. According to data from NBR, about 90,000 tonnes of carrots, tomatoes and green chillies were imported in the 2023-24 fiscal.

Drop in import

According to data from FAO, the gradual exports of potatoes started in 1999, with a low amount of potatoes being exported back then. Export increased gradually. Bangladesh exported a record 208,000 tonnes of potatoes in the 2020-21 fiscal, which dropped by over 50 per cent to 100,000 tonnes in the 2021-22 fiscal, and fell further to 34,000 tonnes in the 2022-23 and about 12,000 tonnes in the current fiscal. Export destinations also decreased from 16 to 11 countries. Besides, cash assistance on the export of potatoes was cut by 5 per cent to 15 per cent from 20 per cent this year.

Replying to a query on the downtrend of potato exports, Potato Exporter Association president Ferdousi Begum told Prothom Alo the cost of potato per kilogram from collecting from the farmers to boarding those on ships was Tk 30 until last year, which crossed Tk 40-45 per kg, but export prices are not increasing in the global market. Potato exports incur losses and considering the current situation in potato markets, it seems exports will fall further in the coming days, he added

Saying that there is no shortage of potato production, she added, that if the market management can be fixed, it is possible to meet the demand, as well as to export with the existing production.

According to data from the World Trade Organization, Bangladesh exported potatoes worth 4.24 billion US dollar in 2022 and ranked 26th among the countries exporting potatoes. As export decreases, Bangladesh may drop in rank in the coming days.

Import dependency to rise

Import of agricultural products including onions, garlic and lentils has been growing due to a shortage of production, and products that are self-sufficient in production, are also being added to the import list. The question also arose whether these agricultural products are becoming dependent on imports.

Regarding this, agricultural economist and Global Village University former vice-chancellor Jahangir Alam told Prothom Alo that potato production has not grown that much over the past two years, and the surplus also fell due to a rise in consumption. Traders can manipulate the market amid low surplus, resulting in price instability, and currently, it is happening. For this reason, there is no alternative to increasing the production of potatoes. Data on agricultural products including potatoes should be estimated accurately instead of exaggerating it so that the government can undertake plans to increase production, he added.

This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna