Food security under strain

| Updated: October 24, 2017 19:23:36

Food security under strain

If food security means availability of staple and other essentials at affordable prices, it now appears that it is now in a flux.  Rice is the price leader in the market. That is why price of the staple always has a bearing on those of other essentials. While even the coarse rice is beyond the reach of common man because of high price, no vegetable could now be bought below Tk 40 a kilo this year. What's about fish and meat? 
The explosive kitchen market scenario simply belies the official figure of inflation. People of the middle and the lower middle class, having fixed income, are now reeling under spiraling prices these days. It's better not to speak of plight of the poor. The government officials and employees getting steep pay hike along with Baishakhi allowance hold no figure in terms of percentage compared to vast population outside the financial bonanza further beefed up by money exchanged below the table. 
Who is to blame for the ongoing high rice prices? The Prime Minister's Office should immediately investigate whether some vested groups in the food ministry were in wait for the present food price situation to emerge. If not, why did the ministry fail to assess the situation beforehand and make adequate preparations to face the threat to food security? 
The country lost over one million tons of rice due to deluge in Haor and other areas. The food ministry should have informed the prime minister about the impending situation and acted swiftly to build buffer stock of rice to meet exigencies. It is sad that the government has to reduce rice import duty from 26 per cent to 10 per cent so that the private sector could meet shortages in the market. But then what's about the farmers who could not even recover the cost of rice production?
The open market sale, vulnerable group feeding and other social safety net programmes meant for five million ultra poor have made a serious dent into the government warehouses. During the last one year, these programmes have led to the depletion of food reserve with rice stock falling to a six-year low of 1,90,000 tons. On the other hand, the food department's initiative to replenish rice stock by procuring Boro fizzled out. Millers refused to sell rice to the department for Tk 34 a kg set by the government.
In the first 11 months of this fiscal year, 1.48 million tons of rice were distributed under various government programmes against 1.17 million tons in the corresponding period of fiscal 2015-16. Under the fair price programme alone, 6,84,000 tons of rice were distributed.  Added to this was an unusual early flashflood that struck the Haor region in late March caused a loss of Boro rice totalling one million tonnes. According to market sources, blast attacks (fungi attack) also led to a loss of Boro rice in 19 districts. 
It is not yet known whether the government is thinking of formulating a well-thought-out strategy to deal with climatic challenges Bangladesh is facing today. There is still no indication in this regard. As experts say, even at present conditions, Aman is very vulnerable to climate and climate-related events. Disruption of Aman will thus jeopardise food availability. In the future, climate related natural hazards may become more frequent and more severe, adversely affecting Aman output. 
On the other hand, uncertainties of rainfall will also mean uncertainties regarding irrigation during Boro season. Furthermore, if the regional warming becomes quite severe, Boro will be adversely affected also due to temperature extremes. If either Aman or Boro or both substantially fail in a year, that will bring huge food insecurity, economic, social and ultimately political instability. 
As Dr Asaduzzaman, a veteran economist, said, "There appears to be only a limited awareness of the urgency of the problem as manifested most glaringly in the policies of the country. This is possibly the main reason for inadequate planning and investments for growth in agricultural and food production under climate variability and change.  He said in general, the broad policies, particularly the recent ones are sensitive, sometimes in a holistic manner, to climate change impacts and issues (e.g. Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan; Bangladesh Country Investment Plan for Food Security and Sixth Five year Plan). Unfortunately, such awareness has not been reflected in sectoral policies except the food policies. The National Agricultural Policy, 2013 (pertaining to crops) mentions climate change only cursorily - not as an issue of imminent importance. 
That Bangladeshis' heavy reliance on rice is being reduced gradually is amply evident from the country's substantial import of low-cost wheat. This is indeed a silver lining for food security. There has been increasing domestic demand and stable international price. As of March 6, a total of 4.21 million tons of wheat has been brought into the country, with the private sector accounting for over 95 per cent of the imports, according to data from the food ministry. In fiscal 2015-16, 4.36 million tons of wheat was imported. Importers credited the rise in domestic consumption to the lower price of wheat than rice, change in eating habits, and expansion of bakeries and restaurants.
Low-income groups in both urban and rural areas are increasingly choosing wheat-processed food items like flour over rice for its cheaper price. The import of lower quality wheat from Russia, Ukraine, Argentina and Australia -- which account for 80 per cent of the total import -- soared in recent years. The evaluation of the programmes, however, revealed several limitations; a) large overheads due to operation of a large number of small programmes by different ministries often with the same objectives, b) improper targeting of beneficiary households, and c) leakages in implementation.  
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