Sudden rise in import of food grains

A NEWS report in a local daily on Sunday said that the imports of rice has phenomenally increased over the last six months compared to the same period of the previous fiscal year. Imports at that time covered 2,10,738 tonnes of rice, while it was slightly over 13,232. tonnes in the same period under the last fiscal as per trade figure released by Bangladesh Bank (BB) recently. The import of rice and wheat and other items like lentils, coriander, cloves etc showed sudden steady rise over this period leaving people to wonder the reasons behind it.
Question arises as to whether there is any chance of a supply shortfall locally to trigger a crisis of food security in the country. Moreover what the government is doing. In fact, we know that the crisis is building for some time because government’s local food procurement programme has failed so far this year due to political crisis. It has failed to procure any significant part of the targets. The government procures rice from millers but millers have failed this year to procure paddy from rice producing areas due to blockades and disruptions in transportation and supply chains. Millers at Pabna, one of the rice milling centers, are sitting idle and lying off workers as they have failed to buy enough paddy from rice producing zones. Many of them have signed contract with the government to supply rice and failing to supply. Other millers have not even signed contracts knowing that they would not be able to fulfil the contracts in the uncertain situation.  
We believe that there is a noticeable supply shortfall in government godowns to anticipate a supply gap in the coming months. This may be one aspect of sudden rise in imports. On the other hand, since farmers are failing to sell their produce at good price to bulk buyers like millers, they are also tempting to switch to other crops to avoid loss. So the government may have decided to import more food grains in private and public channels and the Bangladesh Bank figure has essentially reflected it.
But we fear that this sudden rise in import will directly deteriorate the balance of payments situation, thus putting pressure on the external reserves. It may also discourage farmers not to produce more as cheaper imports may knock them out. This may also further aggravate the food security situation in the long run at a time when pressure on available acreage of agricultural land for switching to industrial or commercial use is also on rise.
We believe that the government should have a cohesive policy for the agricultural sector to give enough prices to growers in the first place and use state of the art technology to achieve higher per acre yields to produce more rice and wheat from less land. Moreover it may use subsidy generously to keep farmers producing rice instead of switching to other cereals.
Side by side, there should be fresh initiative for taking land on lease from countries like Myanmar, Tanzania and Kenya, where private sector farms of Bangladesh already have their presence. Myanmar may be the best choice because of its closer proximity to supplement local food grains production shortfall.