The Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) has approved a project to modernise a lab as the government wants to increase annual vegetable exports by 25-30% while reducing imports by 2%.
To this end, the agriculture ministry wants to transform the plant quarantine laboratory at the central packing house in the capital's Shyampur into a lab of international standards.
The ministry believes if the laboratory can be set up by 2023, exports of different vegetables and fruits, including potatoes and betel leaves, to various countries of Asia and Europe will grow.
This is because the facility will help comply with the World Trade Organisation's Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS agreement) and the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC).
The plant quarantine lab was set up under a project in 2011. But due to a lack of proper equipment and skilled manpower, the lab does not function.
That is why Bangladesh cannot comply with the WTO SPS agreement and the IPPC.
In this situation, the Ecnec on Tuesday approved a Tk156.36 crore project to improve the quality of the lab in order to get the Bangladesh Accreditation Board accreditation.
The Department of Agricultural Extension will implement the project, which includes buying and setting up lab equipment among other tasks.
Besides, 180 officials will be given local training and six others will receive training abroad.
After the Ecnec meeting chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Planning Minister MA Mannan and State Minister of the ministry Dr Shamsul Alam talked about the project.
Shamsul quoted the prime minister as saying that agricultural products should be exported after checking their quality as per the demand of the developed world.
He said Bangladesh at present earns $1 billion by exporting agricultural goods.
"The prime minister said the export of agricultural products should be increased so that Bangladesh's reputation abroad grows more. She also instructed the authorities concerned to take more precautions for exporting agricultural products," he added.
Entrepreneurs in this sector hope the market of Bangladeshi vegetables and agricultural products abroad will grow once the project is implemented.
Bangladesh Fruits, Vegetables and Allied Products Exporters Association Adviser Manjurul Islam said exports would grow further if mycology, bacteriology, virology, nematology, and microbiology tests could be done here.
"But there are many challenges, including a lack of skilled manpower. We have to overcome these," he added.
Alam Overseas regularly exports vegetables to London. Its Proprietor Mahbubul Alam said he needs to get his products tested from foreign labs before exporting.
"European countries do not compromise on quality. That is why setting up laboratories here is very important. Products can be tested quickly if we have labs here."
Additional Director of the Plant Quarantine Wing Md Shamsul Alam told The Business Standard vegetables and fruits contain many types of germs.
"If there is a laboratory at the central packing house, we will be able to export products after complying with the necessary requirements. This will ensure product quality and we can also maintain a good image of our country abroad, which will help increase exports."
CPH Lutfar, deputy director of the central packing house, said many requirements need to be fulfilled for exporting goods to Europe.
"For example, it is necessary to check whether betel leaves contain salmonella. Having our own labs will make these tasks easier."
The agriculture ministry said Bangladesh is a major agricultural country, but it imports 1.86 crore tonnes of vegetables every year.
By contrast, only 9.95 lakh tonnes of vegetables are exported from Bangladesh, which is only 5.35% of total exports.
The ministry thinks the country's food security is at risk as exports have not increased in line with imports.
Despite potential, Bangladesh cannot export potatoes and betel leaves for failing to comply with the SPS agreement and the IPPC.
Eight projects costing Tk5,441.63 crore were approved at Tuesday's Ecnec meeting.
The government will give Tk3,332.72 crore to implement the projects while implementing agencies will provide Tk47.93 crore.
Besides, Tk2060.98 crore will come from foreign loans.