The principal objective of agricultural production in Bangladesh is to ensure adequate food supply for the rising population. The memory of the catastrophic famine of 1974 that led to the death of tens of thousands of people due to starvation and the withholding of food shipments by the US government still haunts the country. Successive governments had made self-sufficiency in food production a prime objective of agrarian policy. Much effort had been expended to raise food production in order to avoid an unmanageable food shortage. More than three quarters of the gross cropped area is now devoted to the cultivation of food grains (rice and wheat). In just over four decades the food grain production increased three and half times. The average annual growth rate of food grains during the period 1972-73 to 2016-17 was a respectable 2.89 per cent.
There are some oddities in the BBS (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics) cereal output data that are difficult to understand. During the last two decades (1997-98 to 2016-17) the total food grain output increased by 14.9 million tons or by an annual average rate of 3.12 per cent. The odd thing is that in just four of these 20 years, viz. 1999-2000, 2000-01, 2009-10 and 2013-14, the sum of the yearly incremental cereal output was 14.2 million tons. The total of the net increments of the other 16 years was only 0.7 million tons. How can we explain this very poor growth performance of the cereal crop agriculture in these years against the exceptional growth of the four years mentioned above?
A credible explanation of the very large increase in 2009-10 cereal output (5.6 million tons) could be that there was a large 2.5 million ton fall in the cereal output the previous year due to floods, cyclones etc. It is not unusual to have a bumper crop after a widespread flood due to a rejuvenation of the land which not only recoups the earlier losses but also raises productivity. Similar large single year increases were also achieved in the earlier decades after a large negative shock to the crop output.
But no such explanation can be given for the other three years when the very large increases in output were achieved after two or more years of normal growth. Cereal output increased during the 2-year period 1999-00 and 2000-01 by 4.9 million tons (22.7 per cent) and rice output by 5.2 million tons (26 per cent). In a single year 2013-14 cereal output increased 3.5 million tons (10.8 per cent) and rice output by 3.4 million tons (11.1 per cent). The sum of the annual incremental outputs in these three years amounts to 58 per cent of the total yearly incremental outputs of the years 1997-98 to 2016-17. What is even more remarkable is that these giant strides in cereal productivity were made in these years without any significant increase in cropped area or other agricultural inputs! How was this miracle achieved? One of the common links between these two periods of exceptionally high growth is that both happened prior to general elections when Awami League-led governments were the incumbents. In such times the ministers are usually under some pressure to show a good performance of their sectors.
The food supply of the country depends on both production and external trade. Bangladesh exports very little cereal; hence food supply of the economy is affected by import only. Any food import augments the food supply, hence it is to be expected that when food production increases substantially the need for import would decline. Incredibly, the largest single year increase in cereal output actually led to higher import. The country imported 3.0 million tons of food grains in 2008-09 when production was only 27.3 million tons. Next year output increased by a whopping 5.6 million tons to 32.9 million tons, but nonetheless import increased to 3.5 million tons. A similar situation also obtained four years later. The cereal output was 32.2 million tons in 2012-13 and food import 1.9 million tons. The very next year food output leaped by 3.5 million tons to 35.7 million tons, but import also leaped by 63 per cent to 3.1 million tons. Why was it necessary to import more when the output was so much higher? Did the government and the private importers grossly miscalculate food production or demand? Did the government do any rigorous exercise on forecasting the excess demand for food? It would help prevent wild speculations if the concerned ministries were to provide some credible explanations of these oddities in agricultural data and import.
More importantly, there has been an adverse development in agriculture since 2013-14: cereal output has become stagnant and the import requirement has shot up alarmingly. The import of food grains in 2016-17 was the highest ever in our history eclipsing the massive import of 1998-99. But this too will look minuscule when the import figure for the entire year 2017-18 becomes available. The Department of Agricultural Extension is forecasting a substantial increase in rice output for this year, but food grain import has risen to a mammoth 9.4 million by May 24, 2018!
The import figures of the last two decades raise considerable doubt about achieving self-sufficiency in food production. Food import as a percentage of food production was mostly in double digits or there about. The worst so far is the import of 25.2 per cent of the food production in 1998-99. This figure will be almost certainly dwarfed when all the relevant data for 2017-18 becomes available. Bangladesh will likely become the second highest rice importer of the world after China. It is a stroke of luck that the world grain market has not been tight this year such that rice and wheat could be purchased at affordable prices which prevented undue pressures on the balance of payments. The country cannot depend on luck always. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has forecasted a reduction in world cereal stock in 2018-19 after several years of increase because of a downturn in production of some crops including wheat which is the main cereal import item of Bangladesh. This could impart an upward pressure on the import costs.
In order to maintain food demand-supply balance it is essential that reliable data on relevant variables are publicly available in real time. Agricultural researchers and administrators will have to be more proactive and innovative in their work if large-scale and chronic food deficits are to be prevented. Past policies and efforts have been successful to an extent, but the current developments require new approaches and appropriately qualified people to address the emerging challenges.
M.A. Taslim is a Professor of the Department
of Economics, University of Dhaka