Is food security under threat?

Dhaka,  Sun,  20 August 2017
Published : 13 Aug 2017, 21:10:43
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Is food security under threat?

If farmers fail to plant Aman seedlings in time due to floods latest by the middle part of next month, the production of Aman is likely to suffer a serious setback this year. And in that case, the country, in all probability, would face a tough situation as far as its food security is concerned, observes Shamsul Huq Zahid
'A stitch in time save nine', the age-old adage proved right again in the case of rice import by the Ministry of Food. 

Indifference and delayed action on the part of the ministry have made the food price situation complex. The recurrent floods this year have again posed a serious threat to a rather stable food situation that has been in place for nearly six years. 

The food ministry honchos, who were in a deep slumber until the government food stock depleted to a dangerously low level, are now moving heaven and earth to procure rice in sufficient quantities and help lower soaring rice prices. 

In last two months, 57,000 tonnes of rice imported from Vietnam have reached the government silos. The government has a plan to import more than 1.2 million tonnes of rice immediately to replenish its stock. The overall import might shoot up to 3.0 million tonnes in the next few years.

The entry of Bangladesh in the global rice market with a plan to import a substantial quantity of rice has somewhat changed the scenario. 

The global rice market had been dull until recently with demand for the staple remaining at low level. But when approached by Bangladesh, a number of rice exporting countries, including India and Thailand, have raised their export prices. 

The food ministry has signed a deal for importing 250,000 tonnes of rice with Vietnam. The directorate of food has also floated tenders for importing 400,000 tonnes more and has already signed deals to import 300,000 tonnes until now. 

With domestic production of rice remaining quite satisfactory in recent years, the government preferred to be oblivious of the fact that the situation may take a reverse course following the failure of a major rice crop such as Aman or Boro. 

The government did not import any rice during the past four years. The private import of the staple had been substantial in 2013 and 2014 following withdrawal of duty on its import. But the re-imposition of duty again had a negative effect on private rice import and traders reduced the level of their import to a very low level in the years 2015 and 2016. 

Since the beginning of this calendar year, the price of rice in the domestic market started soaring. But the government's intervention though open market sale or safety net programmes was well below the normal level. The low level of food stock in government storages could be the main reason. Yet there was no move on the part of the food ministry to import rice. Nor was there any decision to lower duty on rice import by the private sector traders.

The loss of substantial quantity of Boro rice to flash floods in haor areas made the situation even worse as rice prices climbed to a record level. Only this time around the food ministry woke up to ground realities. It found that that its food stock was too low to handle a difficult situation. While embarking on an emergency procurement drive, both at home and abroad, it wrote to the Ministry of Finance to waive duty on rice import. The latter, after some foot-dragging, obliged and cut the duty by 18 per cent. 

Private importers taking advantage of reduced duty have started importing rice, mainly from neighbouring India and Myanmar. According to a report published in this paper last Sunday, the National Board of Revenue (NBR) has already incurred a revenue loss of Tk 1.39 billion due to duty slash on rice. 

But the rice prices in the domestic market are still in their highs despite increased import of the staple. Under the circumstances, the NBR is unlikely to reduce further the duty on rice import, said the FE report. 

However, the fact remains that nature has been very unkind to Bangladesh this year. Floods in the first phase caused substantial damage to crops this year. For the last couple of days, a number of major rivers have crossed the red mark again and inundated a vast area in many northern and eastern districts of the country, causing damage to seedbeds for next Aman crop. If farmers fail to plant Aman seedlings in time due to floods latest by the middle part of next month, the production of Aman is likely to suffer a serious setback this year. And in that case, the country, in all probability, would face a tough situation as far as its food security is concerned. 

Natural calamities are nothing new in this part of the world. The nation has showed time and again its resilience in case of devastations. But it is expected that the policymakers would do their part of job in due time to help the nation withstand the effects of calamities, natural or otherwise. The food ministry, it seems, has not been adequately alive to its duties and responsibilities.   

zahidmar10@gmail.com
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