Cold storage operators are of the opinion that between 1.5 and 2.0 million tons of potato will remain unsold by the end of the year because of sluggish demand. Farmers and traders have preserved 5.3 million tons of potato in the cold storages this year which is 32 per cent higher than last year. According to Bangladesh Cold Storage Association, only 10 per cent of potato has been marketed since cold storage operators started releasing potatoes this season. The pace of marketing was obviously slow. Only four months are left before the start of next harvesting season and it is evident that a huge amount of potato will be surplus at the end of the current season.
The price gap between cold storage gates and retail market remains high as retailers sell potatoes after including their operational costs, wastage and profits. The storage capacity has increased this year compared to last year and farmers and traders have stored more potatoes with the hope of making higher profit during the lean season. According to estimates potato production will be around I0 million tons last season. Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics is yet to finalize the estimated production figures for fiscal 2016-17. Potato output was 9.47 million tons in fiscal 2015-16 and 45,OOO tons were exported in the first seven months of 2017. Under the circumstances, the government has to take steps to increase exports and domestic consumption of potatoes. Cold Storage Association has requested for distribution of potato among flood affected people as well as for social safety net programmes. This will help clear the potatoes in stock and benefit the farmers. Cold storage owners will be able to repay bank loans.
There is a crisis of rice at present while potato growers are finding it difficult to sell their stocks as they are not getting fair price for their products. There were talks about utilizing potato as a substitute for rice. Potato enjoyed bumper production this year and supply depots have huge stocks of potatoes. The price was also falling but the cold storages could not unload more than 10 per cent of their stocks. Therefore, new products can not be accommodated in cold storages since the number of cold storages has not increased. The existing 400 cold storages have the capacity to store 5.0 million metric tons whereas potato production has hit 10.0 million metric ton mark.
Although potato has varied uses, its potential has not been fully exploited and enough efforts have not been made for exporting the same. We could neither protect the growers nor utilize the product meaningfully. We have to help the growers so that they do not reduce production of potato next year. Potato has to be utilized for benefit of both the consumers and growers.
Both cold storage owners and farmers are now frustrated as there is not enough demand fore the crop nor there had been any export of potato in recent months. 33 cold storages have been closed down due to lack of demand. In the first six months of the current year only 45,000 tons of potatoes have been exported. The government has been requested to distribute potatoes among the flood affected people. If potato is distributed as relief materials, cold storages will be able to offload their stock and new demand will be created. Potato farmers will be benefited and the cold storage owners will be able to repay their loans. Otherwise potato production will decline again in next season. If fair price is not available, farmers can not repay their loans.
Despite the existing crisis of rice in the country, there is no initiative to motivate people to take potato instead of rice. Cold storage associations have called upon the authorities to utilize potato in food for works programme (FWP), open market sales (OMS) programme, and programme for distribution of potato as relief material among the flood affected people, but the government is yet to respond positively nor there has been any move to distribute the same among the Rohingyas who are badly in need of help.
According to doctors, potato is easily digestible and can bring down the level of cholesterol in blood. It contains vitamin C. There are elements in potato that help reduce chances of cancer and tumour. It also helps keep human skin in good shape if someone takes potato on regular basis.
Millions of marginal farmers, thousands of potato traders, one thousand cold storage owners, banks and financial institutions are associated with potato business. Those who are incurring losses this year, may not be interested to cultivate potato next year and beyond.
Estimated production this year is 10 million and 5.3 million tons from production of last year has been preserved in cold storages. Although season is coming to an end, there is a stock of 3.7 hundred thousand tons. Cost of potato is Tk.1400 per sack while it is selling at Tk.800 per ton. Therefore, there is a loss of Tk.600 per sack but buyers are not available even at this price. If no initiative is taken now, 2.0 to 2.5 million tons of potato may be wasted. Potato is grown in short time and is therefore profitable. People need to be motivated to take more potato along side rice. According to World Potato Council, Bangladesh is the 7th largest producer of potato and 3rd in Asia, but we are lagging behind in export. Since exporters do not have air-conditioned transportation, export of potato becomes risky. Efforts should be made and incentives be declared to augment export of potatoes.
The writer is an economist and columnist.
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