Dependence on imports: How to break away?
Bangladesh is also self-reliant in the production of fruit such as mangoes, pineapple, bananas, guava and jackfruit. Significant successes in the agricultural sector include the extensive use of high-yield technologies, extensive cultivation of the boro crop due to irrigation systems all over, provision of adequate subsidies, simplification of agricultural loans, diversification of crops, high-yield crops, vegetables, fish, ducks, chickens and fruit
On 23 December last year the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) declared that among food importing countries, Bangladesh ranked just after China and the Philippines. This country with the eighth highest population in the world is the most densely populated among countries with large populations, leaving out city states like Luxembourg or Singapore. So this bit of news may not seem anything to be very surprised about.
US diplomat Ural Alexis Johnson in December 1971 had commented that Bangladesh would be an 'international basket case'. President Nixon's defence advisor, later the US secretary of state from 1973 till 1977, agreed. The critics can hardly be blamed for tarring Bangladesh with this humiliating label because there had been a food shortage in Bangladesh at the time. Our demand for rice at the time was 15.5 million tonnes (1 crore 55 lakh tonnes), but we could produce only 11 million tonnes (1 crore 10 lakh tonnes). As Bangladesh did not have adequate foreign exchange to import the shortfall of 4.5 million (45 lakh tonnes), it had no alternative but to stretch out its begging bowl for aid and assistance from the donor countries of the world and international agencies.
From the seventies to the nineties, Bangladesh’s food dependence was to the extreme. It was in 1999 that, under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Agriculture Minister Matia Chowdhury, that self-reliance in paddy production was finally within our reach. But in 2001, the BNP-Jamaat government discarded Awami League agriculture policy and food shortage appeared in the country all over again. In fact, the erroneous policy of BNP-Jamaat in sharply cutting down on food reserves, the country faced a serious food shortage in 2007-08 during the rule of the caretaker government. The government desperately tried to import food grain from abroad at the time, but in vain. No country was willing to export food grain at the risk of creating a possible food shortage.
The situation had instigated panic buying in the country, but a famine was somehow averted. The mahajote government came to power in 2009 and within two years the country achieved food autarky in 2011. Then over the past 12 years, with the exception of 2, the country has continued achieving self-reliance in food production and even seeing surplus.
This success in the agriculture sector bodes well for the economy. In fact, an agricultural revolution is taking place in the country. Rice production has increased over the past 10 years to 39.2 million tonnes (3 crore 92 lakh tonnes). If wheat production is added to this, total food grain production stands at 46 million tons (4 crore 60 lakh tonnes).
Bangladesh ranks second globally in freshwater fish production. It has achieved self-reliance in poultry, meat and eggs. Every year almost there is a surplus in coarse rice [though we do import 6 million to 6.5 million (60 lakhs to 65 lakhs) of wheat every year].While there is still a shortfall in milk production, we have almost become self-reliant in beef production.
The boro crop makes up almost 60 per cent of our paddy production. It is a dry season crop. That is why the fields used for growing mustard seeds to produce mustard oil, are now being to cultivate boro
During the sacred occasion of Eid-ul Azha, cows would be smuggled in from India, but that is no longer required. In fact, during the Eid-ul Azha of 2023, there was a surplus of sacrificial cows.
Bangladesh is also self-reliant in the production of fruit such as mangoes, pineapple, bananas, guava and jackfruit. Significant successes in the agricultural sector include the extensive use of high-yield technologies, extensive cultivation of the boro crop due to irrigation systems all over, provision of adequate subsidies, simplification of agricultural loans, diversification of crops, high-yield crops, vegetables, fish, ducks, chickens and fruit.
While not diminishing these achievements, it must be admitted that it is nothing surprising for Bangladesh to rank third among the countries importing the highest amounts of food. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says Bangladesh produces 93.3 million tonnes (9 crore 33 lakh tonnes) of agricultural products and imports 12.5 million tonnes (1 crore 25 lakh tonnes).
Till 2020 a total of 9.3 percent of the country’s food demand was imported. In 2022 the imports went up to 11.2 per cent of the demand. As people’s per capital GNI had increased, their capacity to purchase food from the market had increased in these three years and so had the country’s financial capacity for import.
We spend the most on imports for wheat, edible oil and powdered milk. Importing spices, lentils and fruit is essential for Bangladesh. We do not have much scope to increase our wheat production, but various flour products are gaining popularity in the market along with people’s increase in income. And so, we have to import 5.5 million (55 lakhs) to (60 lakhs) of wheat.
The boro crop makes up almost 60 per cent of our paddy production. It is a dry season crop. That is why the fields used for growing mustard seeds to produce mustard oil, are now being to cultivate boro. In our childhood, during the Pakistan period here, East Pakistan was self-sufficient in mustard oil production. However, with the cultivation of high-yield boro paddy on the rise, we began to become more and more reliant on import for edible oils from the sixties.
Now 80 per cent of our edible oil demand is met by importing soybean oil and palm oil. And with people’s incomes increasing, the people’s use of edible oils is increasing too. I feel that if the government placed priority on offering incentives, it would not be impossible to regain self-reliance in mustard production. In Cumilla, Bogura, Dinajpur and Jashore, there is a practice to plant mustard in the fields after the aman paddy harvest and before the boro crop is planted. That is even if it means pushing boro plantation back by 15 days, this will not affect the boro paddy production. If mustard production is technologically possible in these districts, then why is the government not taking up initiatives on a priority basis to cultivate mustard in other districts as well?
There is another common perception that we cannot curb our reliance on powdered milk. The culture to use powdered milk as infant formula is still embedded in our country. It is a ‘fashion’ among the middle-class not to breastfeed the infants. Then there is the culture of distributing sweets. That is not a good culture. In the past when there had been a surplus of milk production in the country, milk was used to make sweets for the sake of preserving the milk and for business. But electricity has made milk preservation processes easier and so I feel it would be wise to discourage the sweet culture.
Above all, India has shown how rearing cows of good breed can lead to self-reliance in milk production. Why are we not taking up the Indian model?
* Dr Mainul Islam is an economist and former professor of the economics department at Chittagong University
* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir