Making food security a reality

| Updated: October 24, 2017 00:04:28

Making food security a reality

It is a wonder to many people of the world that Bangladesh could feed its 160 million people so long from within or from its own supply. Credit should go to the country's farmers, who, though mostly illiterate, were quick to adopt modern technologies in farming including the high-yielding varieties (HYVs). From an ever-squeezing landmass, they could grow more food crops. But there is a limit to their efforts in meeting the ever-increasing demand for food grains, especially rice.  Sometimes, there were some shortages, which were filled up by imports from external sources. 
In the pre-independence period, Bangladesh was producing just one-third of what it is producing now as food grain. The country has been having an easy time with respect to feeding its growing population for the past few decades. The government's supportive policy towards agriculture has brought about a great change; this is almost a revolutionary development. The food grain exporting countries always looked at Bangladesh as to whether it was about to have a deficit in food supply and they could have taken the  advantage. 
But luckily, such a situation did not happen in Bangladesh. Many people were taken aback when they saw how successfully Bangladesh was managing its food supply. At times, food grain prices went so low that some farmers stopped rice cultivation. Instead, they started using lands for other crops including fruits and vegetables. Transformation that took place in land use has been huge. More and more lands are used for crops other than paddy. 
Today, Bangladesh can say proudly that it is one of the developing economies which have been able to use its lands for a variety of crops other than traditional rice production. Land use for poultry and fisheries are two good examples in this respect. Livestock also made a big progress. Consumers are meeting their needs of liquid milk to a large extent from within and at reasonable prices. Though the farmers are to be credited for the big change that had happened in agriculture over the last few decades, they are the end-receivers when the benefits of the change are distributed. They do not get fair prices for their produce. They have to sell their produce with no profit or with marginal profit. The middlemen are the real beneficiaries of trade in agriculture. Agriculture, to a big extent, has been modernised, but the pattern of trading of agricultural goods has remained traditional. 
Trading in food grains is done by a group of people having money and storage capacity. The government has not as yet undertaken any serious move to make this trade more competitive and open. The rich people of urban areas remain aloof from this trade. As a result, the growers never receive fair prices for their produce. The most part of value addition in agricultural produces goes to the middlemen. 
The government's procurement policy also could not break the nexus that exploits the farmers. As the government procures very little, the middlemen take full advantage of the situation. 
After many years, this time, the government has been caught off-guard. When news came out that crops of Haor areas were destroyed by flood, an awakening bell was rung. Suddenly the government found that its store houses were almost empty; alarmingly low stock of food grain was there in warehouses. Taking advantage of the situation, the rice mills owners ganged up and slowly increased prices of food grains by controlling the supply side. Within two weeks, price of rice went up to 30 per cent or beyond. The prices have remained there and people are found wondering whether Bangladesh has really attained food autarky or whether it is so fragile that it only remains at the margin. 
For Bangladesh, the challenging task is to match its growing needs for food grains from an increasingly less availability of land for agriculture. In a year, Bangladesh is losing more than one per cent of its cultivable lands to other uses, especially to homesteads and industries. The coming days would not be better in terms of land availability for agriculture. Many people wonder how Bangladesh would be able to feed its growing population from a decreasing land area for agricultural produce. 
A well-thought-out food policy must be in place with honest and right people implementing it. The current global food prices may not remain low in view of climate change. A little import may always remain an option for Bangladesh but vested quarters in a sensitive sector like food supply need to be dealt with severely. There should not be any bungling in this sector. After all, food supply puts the strength of a government on trial all over the world. 
The writer is Professor of Economics, University of Dhaka. 
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