Bangladesh may be harvesting a bumper rice crop, seen up 17 per cent from last year and making up more than half its total demand, offering some relief to millions in the country who risk starvation at a time of record world prices.
The major boro rice crop is expected to yield nearly 17.5 million tonnes this year, against 15.0 million tonnes in 2007, leaving Bangladesh to seek costly imports for the rest of its estimated 30 million tonnes needed to secure its food supply, officials said.
"This year we expect up to 17.5 million tonnes of boro rice, and definitely it will have a positive impact on the market," C.S. Karim, government adviser for agriculture said on Sunday.
"But everything depends on the honest behaviour of dealers and businessmen. We are following a free market economy and there is not much to do for any government," he told Reuters.
One kg of rice has doubled in price over the past year at 40 taka (58 cents) and wheat is at 44 taka one kg, up 150 per cent, forcing a third or more of the country's over 140 million people to skip one or two meals a day, economists said.
Global food prices, based on United Nations records, rose 35 per cent in the year to end-January, markedly accelerating an upturn that began in 2002.
Since then, global prices have risen 65 per cent, making it expensive for impoverished Bangladesh to import, after the country lost nearly 3 million tonnes of foodgrains in two floods and a cyclone between July and December last year.
Nearly 2.5 per cent of the country's budget goes to food imports on average each year, officials said.
The high costs and shortage of food pose a huge test to the army-backed interim government, which took charge 18 months ago and is due to hand over powers after elections planned for this year-end.
While the expected bumper crop offers hopes that the worst may soon be over, economists warn against being too optimistic.
"I don't see any respite from the current food price hike," economist Abul Barakat said on Sunday.
"Our supply chain is very poor and inefficient and regulatory function is not active. So the middlemen, who control 40 per cent of the price, can easily manipulate the market," he said.
LAGGING OUTPUT GROWTH
Other than soaring international prices, analysts also blamed import difficulties, market speculation, manipulation by middlemen, corruption and high production costs for the food crunch.
The government introduced "cut price" sale of nearly 40 per cent in January for rice, wheat, pulses and other commodities through shops run by troops and the food ministry.
Barakat said that since the assistance programme would end this week, he urged the government to distribute free rice among the 30-40 million extremely poor Bangladeshis, who live on less than $1 a day.
About half the population spend 70 per cent of their income on food but remain half-fed or without food, Barakat said.
"The government must introduce a proper public distribution system including rationing in order to save lives," he added.
Experts said that with a population growing almost 2 million every year, Bangladesh must increase its annual rice production by 350,000 tonnes, in addition to covering the current deficit of 2.5 million tonnes.
To achieve the targeted output, the rate of increase for rice should be 3.5 per cent, but growth stagnated at 1.4 per cent in 2000-2006, said a research paper on Food Security in Bangladesh.
At the same time, 82,000 hectares (202,600 acres) of cultivable lands are lost every year due to river erosion, infrastructure development, industrialisation and urbanisation as well as human settlement development, it added. (Reuters)