Bangladesh has made remarkable growth in agriculture since independence. This is both in terms of growth in yield and output of cereal production. Food production in Bangladesh has kept its pace with its population growth. Despite population growth over time, the country has attained food self-sufficiency at the aggregate level and increased calorie availability. On average, access to food has also improved. This has been due to the Green Revolution experienced by the country during the past decades. Along with growth, food consumption pattern has also changed.
The recently launched 2020 Global Food Policy Report of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) indicates that per capita consumption of cereals has declined while that of meat, eggs, fish, fruits, vegetables and milk has increased across South Asia. In case of Bangladesh, one of the reasons for improvement in its nutritional status, reduction in child stunting, underweight and wasting is the diversity in diet. Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2019, by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and UNICEF reveals that chronic malnutrition which is measured by stunting levels declined to 28 percent in 2019 from 42 percent in 2013.
The other change in the agriculture sector is the expansion of the food processing sector. This has also been a source of employment. With further technological upgradation food processing can be further increased. This has the potential to improve food availability. Despite paucity of real time and authentic data it can be said that the agriculture sector has been an important catalyst for poverty reduction through employment generation and food consumption. The value chains created within the sector such as through poultry and fishery sub-sectors have also helped the poor to improve their condition.
Of course, food self-sufficiency does not mean food security and food availability for all. It does not also mean food equity and food inclusivity. Bangladesh still lags behind in the Global Food Security Index. In 2019 Bangladesh was ranked 83rd position out of 113 countries in the Global Food Security Index. Bangladesh's ranking is the lowest among the South Asian countries. At a more disaggregated level, it is observed that in case of food affordability and availability Bangladesh's scores have been good. However, the index on quality and safety of food has been moderate, indicating the need for improvement.
As the world suffers from the coronavirus pandemic—the biggest crisis of the century—the need to build inclusive food systems has become more important than ever before. This is to ensure that marginalised and vulnerable people enjoy the benefits of an inclusive food system. It is also related to the fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goals 1 and 2 which urge upon ending poverty and achieving zero hunger, respectively.
However, it is almost clear now that the consequences of corona outbreak will be prolonged for several more months. Therefore, it has been predicted by various organisations and experts that corona crisis will lead to the hardest global recession so far. The socio-economic achievements which have been made during the last several decades are thus at risk of being reversed due to the impact of Covid-19. Therefore, as countries are taking various initiatives to revive their economies, they are also planning for adequate food availability.
Coronavirus pandemic has affected the agricultural production and supply system in many countries. However, despite such crisis, Bangladeshi farmers have given the country a good harvest of Boro. Of course, cyclone "Amphan" has affected the sector substantially. The government has put emphasis on Aman and Aus crop. In the meantime, the government has also planned to import rice. While this is a good initiative to stay prepared for the bad time, it should be done in a realistic manner based on the actual need. Because, if more rice is imported than what is required, farmers will not get due prices for their own production. This will disincentivise them from producing more in the next season. We should not lose sight of the contributions of the farmers and giving them their due prices while planning for imports.
The other concern during the ongoing corona crisis is distributing food to the poor and also bringing food to the market so that people can purchase them at an affordable price. Therefore, marketing and other logistical arrangements have to be in place to make food available. During crisis, it is common that the opportunists stock food and create an artificial crisis in the market. On the other hand, farmers have to sell their produce immediately after the harvest since they have to live their lives and also give wages to labourers. They neither have savings to survive for a few days nor any storage to keep their harvest. Due to such distress sale of their produce, they do not get the right price. If the government provides them support during this interim period, they can sell their harvest at a better price after a certain period.
To ensure food security, policymakers need to take proactive measures towards equitable distribution of food. It has been obvious that in order to reverse the coronavirus-led unemployment and poverty the government will have to rely on the domestic economy to a large extent. Agriculture can provide a huge support for bouncing back from economic recession. In the face of corona-led economic struggle, many people are migrating back to their villages so that they can at least survive by being engaged in agriculture or non-farm activities. This reiterates the need for higher investment in agriculture, particularly in commercial agriculture through farm mechanisation and technological adoption. The focus has to be broadened from subsistence agriculture to agricultural trade. Ironically, the allocation for the Ministry of Agriculture remains unutilised, despite there being many areas of investment and innovation.
Indeed, for the agriculture sector, a two-pronged approach should be adopted. On the one hand, technological innovations are necessary to improve productivity and sustainability in the agriculture and rural sectors. On the other hand, food production has to be coupled with policies and strong institutions for procurement, marketing and distribution. The issue of food security and reduction of hunger is not only related to the agriculture sector alone, it is part of broader macroeconomic policy. Broader reforms are needed in case of land policy, pricing policy, subsidy policy and fiscal policy to have a modern agriculture sector.
Food security for the vulnerable people during crisis such as corona pandemic also requires strong social safety net measures. The government of Bangladesh has expanded social safety net programmes in the budget for fiscal year 2020-21. However, since Covid-19 is not going to leave us soon there will be need for further support to the poor so that they do not go hungry.
Internationally, there are calls for not imposing restrictions on food trade. However, past experiences have shown that during economic stress countries resort to protectionism no matter how much we emphasise on international cooperation and mutual responsibility for the global poor. Already, several countries have imposed restrictions on exports of several agricultural products. The spirit of global cooperation gets lost in the urgency of saving their own people. We have experienced such situation in 2008. There is no reason to expect otherwise during the corona pandemic. Therefore, we have to prepare ourselves, both for the short and medium term to ensure food security.
By Dr Fahmida Khatun, Executive Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue.