Needed : More efficiency in producing basic foods

Bangladesh, at present, is becoming growingly dependent on the import of essential basic foods . It imports nearly all of its requirements of baby food and half of its need for milk in powdered form.
The country was once self sufficient in onions, garlic, ginger and other spices. Now a big part of the demands for these spices are met by imports. This country produced a surplus of peppers once upon a time. But now it takes care of more than 50 per cent of its demand for pepper from imports.
80 per cent of the demand for pulses is also met by import. In recent years, it has been importing 1.5 to 2.0 million tons of food grains.
90 per cent of the demand for cooking oil is also met by imports. Even salt is imported in large quantities from time to time.
The above figures are indicative of the lack of efficiency of its agriculture– generally– when Bangladesh has been renowned for the amazing fertility of its soil and its comparative advantage in growing various food products. Bangladesh was once famous for its abundance of fishes. But now, a big part of its demand for fishes is also met by imports.
The growing import activities for meeting basic foods are indeed a cause of concern. When the imports are mainly industrial raw materials or intermediate products, the same can be thought of as useful economic activities in view of their value-addition potentials. But surely the same cannot be said about edible goods meant for sheer consumption.
The price-lines of many essential products, specially kitchen items , have soared to high levels in the local markets unlike any other time. Government’s various moves to control this price rise is proving to be difficult or impossible because these goods have to be procured from markets outside the country and government has no powers over overseas markets. The prices of these can be far lower if the same are efficiently produced and marketed locally.
When these daily consumables are being imported at higher and higher prices by the importers, they cannot be ordered by the government to sell the same at artificially lower prices in local markets. If that has to be done, then the government would be required to give massive subsidies to the importers for each of these items. This course is also not realistic or feasible on the part of the government.
Thus, this ‘ imported inflation’ as it is called, continues to ravage our consumers. But this would not happen, if, over the years policies were adopted and pursued sincerely to grow and produce many of these items within the country. In that case, Bangladeshi consumers today would be notably hedged from the imported inflation which is translating into every day painful costs of living anguishes for them.
It is argued that Bangladesh does not have so much lands to both adequately produce food grains for its fast rising population and grow other important edibles. But this line of thinking should be found not tenable on close examination. For example, the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) has so far invented 47 new higher yielding varieties of rice. But only a handful of them have been popularized although there are at least a dozen varieties which can yield substantially higher outputs than the ones which are being cultivated .
The higher yielding seeds are now used in less than one-third of the total cultivable area. But total food grain output can rise by 30 or 40 million tons in the short term even from extending the use of the high yielding seeds in 40 per cent of the present cultivated lands. In that event, the added produced food grain would fully meet current demand as well as for some time also the future increased demand.
But in the process, more than half of the cultivated areas would be freed from the burden of growing only food grains. These lands freed from the pressure of only food grain production, could be intensively farmed to produce far greater quantities of oilseeds, spices, potatoes, vegetables, etc ., reducing substantially the import dependence for these food products.
Similarly, any resolved move on the part of the stakeholders can lead to the flourishing of a strong dairy sector in the country in no time. Bangladesh has some natural or in-built advantages in developing a far stronger dairy sector. A bigger and stronger dairy sector would greatly reduce its dependence on imported milk powder and other dairy products.
Fish farming remains only in the realm of projections in the country. With greater or better official supports backed up by appropriate private initiatives, fish farming is likely to see a huge success in Bangladesh that would make unnecessary the import of fish– which is a vital source of protein for people — from neighbouring countries.