Food crisis and price amid covid-19 triggers grave worries

Published : Tuesday, 20 October, 2020 at 12:00 AM

During the last few months, the price of essential products is behaving in a very unlikely manner. Many is speculating it as a syndication issue while others are claiming it to be shortage of supply. Whatever the case is, during the COVID-19 crisis, it has emerged as a great problem for the people of Bangladesh – especially lower-income and middle-income group. The world is still fighting the pandemic, and its upshots for food supply chains are still unfolding. That the government is concerned about the issue of a possible global food crisis is evident from the statement made by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on, at least, a couple of occasions since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Hence, the people as well as the government need to respond constructively on this matter soon.

On the World Food Day, observed on October 15, the prime minister aired her concern over such a possibility and mentioned the incentives offered by the government, particularly to the peasantry, to help avert any food crisis in the country. When the Covid-19 health crisis broke out, governments reacted with extensive measures like; lockdown measures; identifying agriculture, food processing and retailing as essential activities; measures to guarantee adequate supplies of food. But even after 10 months of the first COVID-19 breakdown, the food crisis seems to be at our doors.

The fear of a severe second wave of the viral infection during the upcoming winter has only intensified the race among countries for the import of food grains and other essential items from the international market. But the food authorities in Bangladesh are least bothered by the developments surrounding the main staple both at home and abroad. The prices of rice have soared to a record high despite a bumper production during the immediate past Boro season. The main staple is now costlier than any time in the recent past.

The rice was the first food item that has experienced a steady hike in prices in recent months. Some other food items have followed suit. Four consecutive floods caused damage to vegetables and some other crops. Onion prices made a big jump as neighbouring India imposed a ban on its export. Edible oil has become pricier globally in recent weeks. Bangladesh traders are very apt in reacting to such a development. However, they tend to be non-reactive in the event of a drop in prices in the international market.

When it comes to the issue of a food crisis, availability and price level of rice are of utmost importance in the case of Bangladesh. Rice prices are already high. The stock of the item with the millers, traders and individual farm households has always been guesswork. The government food stock does always play a decisive role in determining the market price of rice in particular. The government’s rice stock in recent months has been dwindling fast.

The quantity of rice available with the government silos was 8,84,000 tonnes as of October 14 as against 1.34 million tonnes on the same date a year back. The food ministry’s failure to meet the procurement target in the last Boro season remains the main reason for the inadequate rice stock. The consecutive floods between June and September this year have marred the prospect of a better Aman production.

The food ministry should dedicate itself to a major exercise involving the supply and prices of rice, a politically sensitive food item in this part of the world. Defying the government’s fixed rate of Tk30 per kilogram, traders are selling potatoes at Tk50-60 in the capital’s kitchen markets. According to the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB), the prices of more than 10 items increased in a week including eggs, lentil, broiler chicken, ginger, potatoes, chickpeas, edible oil, onions, rice, etc. Among them, potato prices shoot up by 111% from last year, while coarse rice prices also hiked 41%.

Green chillies, which was Tk80 per kg during the same month last year, was now being sold at Tk280-300 per kg. Besides, the price of vegetables also rose in recent weeks. A litre of unpacked soybean oil sold for Tk90-95 a litre, bottled soybean oil sold for Tk108-110 and palm oil sold for Tk85-86 a litre.The prices of fine variety red lentils sold for Tk125 a kg, the medium-quality variety for Tk90-95 a kg and the coarse variety for Tk65-70 a kg.

According to the Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB), soaring prices of vegetables, rice, oil, spices and eggs impacted people the most between May and September. According to CAB’s market monitoring data, prices of those items spiked on a regular basis. Consumer spending on vegetables rose by 5.39% in the five months, says CAB. According to the Association, prices of vegetables topped the list of price increases. Last week, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) said that food inflation has jumped by 0.42 percentage points, standing at 6.50% in September, compared to 6.08% in August. The rising food prices pushed overall inflation in September to 5.97%, which was 0.29 percentage points higher than August levels.

Quite a large percentage of poor and low-income people including the lower-middle-class are finding it hard to make a living these days. The pandemic has exhausted their financial strength. So, the hike in prices of essentials, including rice, is hurting them seriously. If the prices go on rising, their sufferings would only multiply.

The prime minister has referred to loan stimulus package for farmers. But the progress in its disbursement is also not at all satisfactory. The Bangladesh Bank on April 14 last announced a stimulus loan package worth Tk 50 billion for the agriculture sector.  But, during the first three months since that announcement, banks could disburse only Tk 3.8 billion. The central bank asked banks to distribute the rest amount by August, but that target remained unmet. So, the readiness at the field level does not match the awareness observed at the highest level of the government concerning the food situation.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently reassured that not a single person in the country would remain hungry as her government gave top priority to increase food production to ensure food security for all. She said her government has been working to build a developed and prosperous country free from hunger and poverty envisioned by Bangabandhu Sheikh MujiburRahman. But most importantly, she once again called upon all to bring every inch of land under cultivation to ensure food security as many countries in the world might face food shortage.

We must focus on planting fruits, vegetables and other food product trees everywhere in Bangladesh even in urban areas. The government need to take some large projects to involve the unemployed people in the agricultural production which will increase food products as well as will relieve those people from the curse of unemployment. The government must also focus on creating a broker or middlemen-free distribution system for all products produced by the farmers.

They should also take immediate steps to investigate and trace out the real storage of food items like rice, potato, onions, edible oils etc. and must take quick import decisions. Market monitoring must be strengthened. If product is available in plenty in the markets, the price should be under control as there is no lack of supply. Manipulating the market must be harshly punished.

This is the right time for plantation as the dry season has just appeared. We must utilize the coastal areas, ‘char’ areas and waterbeds alongside rivers and canals for food production. The district, upazila and union administration should participate in this effort seriously.

Cattle and fish farming also should be promoted and nationwide campaign should be run. The price of fish-feed and cattle’s food should be controlled in the upcoming months. Most importantly, the people’s representatives, local leaders and political party activists must participate in this venture of ensuring food security. Political commitment will be highly required. Any sort of corruption related to the food sector must not be tolerated.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is a valiant leader and her bold, courageous leadership has transformed Bangladesh into a role model of development. Recently, we have put behind the South Asian super economy, our neighboring country India recently in terms of GDP despite the COVID-19 challenge. She always talks positive. But we must realize that, if she is trying to make us alert repeatedly, we must be prepared for a hard time in the near future.

We believe, under the leadership of Bangabandhu’s daughter PM Hasina we will overcome all the odds and we hope all of us will ensure completion of our duties in this upcoming global food war as that will ensure food for all Bangladeshi people at the right price.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and
Vice-Chairman, Democracy
Research Centre (DRC)

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