A week from now, on March 8, Bangladesh will complete a year with the Coronavirus. One of the fears in the early days of the pandemic, announced by the WHO on March 11 of last year, was the potential for food shortages - if for example supply chains broke down or the virus attained sustained spread in a key sector like farms.
In keeping with its overall experience of the once-in-a-century pandemic, Bangladesh had some moments of anxiety but ultimately prevailed quite comfortably in the field of food security.
Though the prices of daily essentials and other products soared from time to time following panic buying and supply crunch in the country.
After identifying the first cases on March 8, Bangladesh went into lockdown from pretty much the middle of March, with schools closing from March 17. Other institutions soon followed, with the entire country in lockdown mode by Independence Day on March 26 The strictest phase of lockdown lasted till May 30, with pretty much everything closed and streets deserted. Besides, students of PSC, JSC, SSC and HSC level were promoted without final exams amid education institutions closing.
Experts say, Bangladesh performed excellently in the pandemic situation in terms of maintaining food supplies, as well as the broader task of keeping the economy moving. Several factors played a role here such as---continuing harvesting, operating markets, okaying public services, government's good initiatives and the epidemic not getting out of control here.
They suggested the government to reform public policies, upgrade data, and increase productivity in the agriculture sector to achieve the SDGs by 2030 conducting more research and using technology.
Talking to UNB, Distinguished Fellow of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya said the Covid-19 did not pervade rural Bangladesh, and that's one of the major factors to perform well in food supply. Covid-19 didn't disrupt the supply chain, nor the production process in agriculture.
"Though the economic activity in cities stopped during the pandemic, it continued in rural areas of the country. As a result harvesting continued and agriculture markets operated properly. Besides, the supply of vegetables and other curries went well. Farmers got agriculture elements including seeds and fertilizers in time in that period," he also added.
He said though labour shortage was seen in that time early on in the pandemic, later it was covered following migration mobilization in the country.
Asked whether Bangladesh is actually self-sufficient in food, Debapriya said there might be sufficient per capita availability of food in the country, but that does not mean that each household is food-secure. They each have to be able to purchase food to survive. The per capita stock of food can be misleading.
"The estimation [of rice] was not accurate. The government couldn't catch the shortage of rice till it was too late, so the imported amount was a bit late. We need disaggregated data too," he also added.
The noted economist said the country's first and foremost matter is to increase productivity in the agriculture sector. "We make 20 percent GDP by 40 percent people. Our per capita production is very low. It's very important to increase labour productivity. Hence, the important thing is to increase mechanisation of the post-harvest activity in the sector," he added.
Dr Debapriya urged the government to build an Agriculture Price Commission (APC) to ensure fair prices for farmers and stabilize the market in Bangladesh. Besides, purchasing centres should be built at "union level" of the country.
"We need the institution for the sake of both agriculture and farmers improvement. Otherwise the position of farmers won't improve here. The APC will fix the prices of all agriculture products. It will get rid of dependency on bureaucracy. Besides, policy efficiency and social accountability should be increased in the country," he suggested.
Dr Debapriya suggested the government to reform public policies and increase productivity in agriculture to achieve SDG by 2030. So, research and the use of technology in agriculture should be enhanced.
Director General of Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) Dr Md Shahjahan Kabir said Bangladesh was able to harvest 2.1 crore metric tonnes of Boro paddy in the last season alongside around 30 lakh tonnes Aman paddy.
"Around 29-30 lakh metric tonnes of rice will be surplus in June 2021 in the country. Boro and Aus paddy harvested bumper in this season and Aman rice varieties will come fully soon. So there won't be a food crisis in the country. Our confidence level is very high here," Dr Shahjahan said.
Dr Shahjahan said they brought out the figure considering 405 gramme per head daily eating of rice by human consumption of 16.7 million people. Boro and Aus harvested more than was estimated this year.
"The prices of rice increased in market due to monsoon traders. The rice went to different pockets of people. To tackle the situation, the government has to increase its stock. Then, the price of per kg rice will never jump over Tk50," Dr Shahjahan also said.
President of Bangladesh Auto Rice Mill Owners' Association AKM Khorshed Alam Khan said they contributed vastly giving rice security in the country amid the COVID-19 while many developed countries suffered in food crisis. But they did not get financial support from the government.
"The rice prices go up due to low harvesting and stock, and increasing costs including electricity, energy and labour wages. Besides, groups of companies are responsible for price hikes, not small and medium millers," he also said.
AKM Khorshed said they bought rice from farmers at Tk 1050. "We think that the country will thrive if our farmers survive. Now a crisis of rice is seen in the market following wrong estimations of the Agriculture Ministry.
According to the Food Ministry, the government stock of food grains is 07.21 lakh metric tonnes, Of this, rice is 05.37 lakh MT tonnes and wheat is 1.84 lakh MT till January 13, 2021.
"The price of coarse rice increased 43.08 percent a kg, medium 15.22 percent and fine one went up 9.09 percent compared to previous year," according to the data of state run Trading Corporation (TCB) on January 14.
However, rice production for the 2020-21 marketing year is expected to rise to 36.3 million tonnes in Bangladesh as further cultivation of hybrid and high yield variety plantings increase. The country is expected to import 200,000 tonnes of rice in the 2020-21 marketing year to ease food security tensions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Global Agricultural Information Network report from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The Secretary to the Food Ministry Dr Mosammat Nazmanara Khanum told UNB they succeeded to tackle the crisis moment of the pandemic in 2020 through integrated initiatives.
"Directed by the Prime Minister, all concerned ministries took a number of necessary initiatives to tackle the crisis moment. So we were able to continue food supply properly. Every day, we sat in meetings with different ministries including Agriculture, Finance, Food, Disaster Management and Relief, and Social Welfare Ministry for the sake of people," she added.
Dr Nazmanara said the country's crop production was good due to hard work by farmers. "So we thank our farmers. We survive till now due to good production of crops and integrated initiatives by the government. The government also assisted poor people in various ways including distributing emergency foods and cash," she also added.
She said around 1,50,000 metric tonnes of rice were provided among 50 lakh families in six months last year. There are many projects that are disbursed at the end of fiscal year. But these were distributed based on emergency then.
"However, we have already allowed 8.71 lakh tonnes of rice for import to control the recent soaring price. We will import rice more until the market is under control. We would like to ensure farmers' and consumers' rights through fair price. So we won't limit the import figure now," the secretary also told UNB.