With dwindling wheat stock that has now hit the lowest mark in three years, consumers are likely to switch to rice, which will put a serious pressure on the staple.
Bangladesh now has only 1 lakh tonnes of wheat in stock, which is about one-third of that in the same period last year.
When it comes to rice stock, the government is still in a comfortable position but new consumers may cause rice demand to go up significantly leading to its scarcity.
According to food ministry data as on 22 May, the government has a stock of 11.59 lakh tonnes of food grains, including 10.51 tonnes of rice and a little over one lakh tonnes of wheat. On the same date last year, rice and wheat stocks stood at 4.5 lakh tonnes and 2.91 lakh tonnes respectively. Two years ago, the wheat stock was 3.6 lakh tonnes.
The depleting wheat stock has now appeared as a cause for concern with 63% of sourcing countries having been closed as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war.
A global food crisis now looms large owing to the shock of the war, climate change and rising inflation.
Deliveries from Russia, which together account for about one-third of the world's wheat production, have turned increasingly complicated, while grain supplies from Ukraine have remained stopped.
On top of it, India's ban on wheat exports to rein in domestic prices of the food grain has added to supply crunch.
An analysis of the food ministry's wheat imports data shows that government imports have remained normal but private ones have dropped.
In 11 months of the current fiscal year, wheat imports stood at 34.58 lakh tonnes of which the government imported 4.44 lakh tonnes and the private sector the remaining 30.13 lakh tonnes.
In the last fiscal year, government imports amounted to 4.78 lakh tonnes and 48.64 lakh tonnes were brought in at the private level, meaning that the private import in this fiscal year has been more than 18 lakh tonnes lower than FY21.
In the meantime, the government has taken measures to increase wheat imports. India banned wheat exports on 13 May but it has kept a window open for its neighbour Bangladesh to import the grain under government-to-government deals. The food ministry has already started talks with India to take advantage of this opportunity.
Talking to the media, Food Minister Sadhan Chandra Majumder said they are trying to import 10 lakh tonnes of wheat from India.
Prices of all processed food, such as bread, biscuits, noodles, and other items made from wheat have shot up under a cascading effect from wheat price hikes. Bulk flour prices went up to Tk46 per kg from Tk36 per kg. Prices of roti, paratha and frozen food increased as well, hurting wallets of consumers. The rising food cost has led many limited-income people to cut back spending on food.
Economists say a group of consumers will reduce consumption of food made from wheat flour and may increase rice intake.
Economist Jahangir Alam told The Business Standard that when prices of alternative food products surge, people will return to consumption of the staple food. But the amount of additional demand on rice is something that needs investigation.
He suggested taking necessary preparation in this regard.
Last year rice prices went up soon after the end of Boro season. Having failed to cool off the volatile rice market, the government permitted imports of 20 lakh tonnes of rice privately.
This time the situation is going in the same direction. Rice prices are rising even in the peak season. The government has not yet reached any decision with regard to rice imports to handle this situation.
According to a recent USDA report, a total of 3.6 crore tonnes of rice is expected to be harvested in the current fiscal year. Last year, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, rice production stood at 3.76 crore tonnes.
There are fears that paddy production may decline during the Boro season owing to early floods and torrential rains in haor areas.
The Department of Agricultural Extension estimated 2.8 crore tonnes of paddy output this season.
At a programme, Agriculture Minister Abdur Razzak, however, said Boro paddy production would not decrease this year.
Jahangir Alam said even if production remains the same as last year, there might be a shortage as wheat consumers are likely to shift to rice.
In this situation, there will be no alternative to importing in advance to handle the extra pressure as rice prices are going up in local markets, they note.
'No problem if stock goes down'
Director General of Food Directorate Md Shakhawat Hossain told TBS, "Some one lakh tonnes of wheat have already reached Chattogram port from India and a letter of credit for another one lakh tonnes has been opened, it will also come soon."
"Besides, the import of one lakh more tonnes of wheat from other countries are also under process. So even if the stock goes down, I do not see any problem because there are another three lakh tonnes in the pipeline," he also said.
Importers say the cost of Indian wheat is still below $400 per tonnes, but it costs close to $550 whenever they go for procuring from alternative sources, such as Canada, Australia and the United States.
According to the commerce ministry, the wheat price the international market has surged by 75% to $506 per tonne in one year.
Md Taslim Shahriar, assistant general manager at Meghna Group told TBS, usually when commodities get expensive, imports go down. As Bangladesh shares borders with India on three sides, wheat also comes through informal channels.
Asked if the LCs opened for imports from Russia and Ukraine were cancelled owing to the war, he said, "The Meghna Group had no such issue. But I have heard that this has happened for some companies."
Wheat imports 3.5 lakh tonnes lower than usual
TBS analysed data on wheat imports through Chattogram and Benapole ports in the three months since the Russia-Ukraine war began. It showed that during the time, the two ports received 3.5 lakh tonnes less wheat than usual.
According to the Plant Quarantine Wing (Chattogram seaport), since the beginning of the war (February 25) till 23 May, 8.1 lakh tonnes of wheat were imported through Chattogram port at both government and private sectors.
On the other hand, 38,582 tonnes of wheat came through the Benapole port during the three months till 18 May. It has been reported that wheat is not coming from India through the port.
The total imports since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war stood at around 8.5 lakh tonnes against the demand of 12 lakh tonnes. No shipments came from two big sources, Russia and Ukraine during the time.
Recently, some consignments of wheat have arrived from India at Chattogram port. Of them, over one lakh tonnes of wheat came from India in two ships.
The wheat imported in the last two weeks has been brought in by BSM Group from Khatunganj, Chattogram, Nabil Group from Rajshahi and Bashundhara Group. They imported wheat from Canada and Australia.
Md Nasir Uddin, deputy director at Plant Quarantine Wing (Chattogram seaport), said six ships at the Chattogram port are now unloading wheat. A few more wheat-laden ships are scheduled to reach the port soon.
Abul Bashar Chowdhury, chairman of BSM Group, a wheat importer, said about three lakh tonnes of wheat has arrived so far since India announced a halt to wheat exports. Some more imports are on the way.
As a result, even if prices of wheat go up slightly owing to an increase in booking prices, there will be no shortage of supply, he added.
According to various international news sources, China is stocking up on various food grains. India, on the other hand, has already announced a ban on wheat exports and limited sugar exports to check domestic inflation.
Bangladesh is dependent on India for rice imports too. In that case, the way India is restricting one export after another to safeguard its stocks, there are fears that rice imports from the neighbouring country might not be easy if needed.