The principal objective of agricultural production in Bangladesh is to ensure an 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 from starvation and the withholding of food shipments by the US government still haunts the country. Successive governments have 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 agricultural area in the country is devoted to the cultivation of food grains (rice and wheat). In just over four decades the food grain production has increased three-and-a-half times. The average annual growth rate of food grains during the period 1972-73 to 2016-17 was a respectable 2.89 percent. This led some ministers to claim, a little too early, that Bangladesh has already attained self-sufficiency in food.

There are some oddities in the BBS cereal output data that are difficult to understand. During the last two decades the total food grain output increased by 14.9 million tonnes, that is, at an annual average rate of 3.12 percent (see table below). The odd thing is that in just four of these 20 years, that is 1999-2000, 2000-01, 2009-10 and 2013-14, the sum of the yearly incremental cereal output was 14.2 million tonnes. The total of the net increments of the other 16 years was only 0.7 million tonnes. How can we explain this very poor growth performance of the cereal crop agriculture in these years against the exceptional growth in the four years mentioned above?

A credible explanation of the very large increase in 2009-10 cereal output (5.6 million tonnes) could be that there was a large 2.5 million tonne 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 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 two-year period 1999-00 and 2000-01 by 4.9 million tonnes (22.7 percent) and rice output by 5.2 million tonnes (26 percent). In a single year 2013-14 cereal output increased 3.5 million tonnes (10.8 percent) and rice output by 3.4 million tons (11.1 percent). The sum of the annual incremental outputs in these three years amounts to 58 percent 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 good performance of their sectors.

The food supply of the country depends on both production and external trade. Bangladesh exports very little cereal; hence the food supply of the economy is affected by imports 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 imports. The country imported 3 million tonnes of food grains in 2008-09 when production was only 27.3 million tonnes. Next year’s output increased by a whopping 5.6 million tonnes to 32.9 million tonnes, but nonetheless import increased to 3.5 million tonnes. A similar situation also occurred four years later. The cereal output was 32.2 million tonnes in 2012-13 and food import 1.9 million tonnes. The very next year food output leaped by 3.5 million tonnes to 35.7 million tonnes, but imports also leaped by 63 percent to 3.1 million tonnes.

Why was it necessary to import so much 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 before deciding on imports? It would help prevent wild speculations if the concerned ministries were to provide some credible explanations of these oddities in cereal crop 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 imports 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 imports has risen to a mammoth 9.8 million by Jun 5, 2018. It looks like this year’s import alone will exceed the entire production of food grains of the country in its early years!

The import figures of the last two decades raise considerable doubt about achieving self-sufficiency in food grain production. Food grain import as a percentage of domestic production was mostly in double digits or there about. The worst so far is the import of 25.2 percent 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 always depend on such luck. FAO has forecast a reduction in the world cereal stock in 2018-19 after several years of increase because of a downturn in production of some crops including wheat which happens to be 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 to permit proper analysis. 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.

Table: Production and Import of Food Grains

(Thousand tonnes)

Year Rice Production Rice and Wheat  Production Rice and Wheat Import
1997-98 18,861 20,664 1,951
1998-99 19,905 21,813 5,491
1999-00 23,067 24,907 2,104
2000-01 25,086 26,759 1,554
2001-02 24,300 25,906 1,799
2002-03 25,187 26,694 3,220
2003-04 26,189 27,442 2,788
2004-05 25,157 26,133 3,374
2005-06 26,530 27,265 2,562
2006-07 27,318 28,055 2,420
2007-08 28,931 29,775 3,457
2008-09 26,412 27,261 3,013
2009-10 31,974 32,875 3,454
2010-11 30,416 31,388 5,313
2011-12 30,867 31,862 2,290
2012-13 30,924 32,179 1,872
2013-14 34,356 35,659 3,125
2014-15 34,960 36,308 5,274
2015-16 34,869 36,217 4,623
2016-17 33,804 35,115 5,823
2017-18 n.a. n.a 9,814*
Source:  Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics

*Till June 5, 2018


M A Taslimis an economist and currently an adjunct faculty at East West University.