TDS: Do you think that Bangladesh may face a famine?
Jahangir: Globally, there will be a famine, for sure. Many of the countries are under lockdown for three to four months. They are not being able to go for food production. Farm inputs are not reaching farmers. This means there won't be any surplus of food. Countries that are heavily dependent on imported food will not be able to import food from the international market as per their need even if they have the purchase capacity. It's because every nation will try to meet their food demand first.
If you talk about Bangladesh, I think we are still in a good position. Our Boro yield is good. What's important now is to help farmers harvest and preserve it properly. Public procurement has to be extensive. The challenge, however, is for the Aman and the next Boro season. We need to do everything so that farmers can do farming in full swing. We have to remember that we are self-sufficient in rice, but we import around 60 lakh tonnes of grains -- maize and wheat -- every year. Much of our dairy, poultry, and fish production depends on maize, the main food for livestock. We need to make sure we produce these grains domestically. That's very much possible if we can inspire farmers.
TDS: What are the current challenges of agriculture in Bangladesh?
Jahangir: The major challenge is keeping the food supply chain intact. We can see that farmers are not getting fair prices at all. Two factors are responsible for this. One is that purchasing power of a large section of people has come down with no work and no earnings. On the other hand, the majority of vegetables, milk, fish, chicken, and eggs produced in villages cannot be transported to cities. Transport owners are hiking transport fare. As a result, people in the urban areas are buying the produce at high prices, but farmers are either abandoning their produces or selling them at a minimal prices. If this trend continues, small and medium farmers will incur losses. They will become frustrated and won't go for production in the next season. And that will result in a shortage of domestic food production.
TDS: What is your suggestion to keep the supply chain intact?
Jahangir: The government's agriculture and food departments, along with police and army, should come forward to keep the supply chain intact. They have a lot of vehicles that can be used to transport agri-products from farms to cities where the demand is high.
The government can also distribute these food items as relief materials. Such initiatives would allow farmers to make profit and help them prepare for the next season.
On the other hand, dairy farmers can produce more powdered milk, which can be preserved. The producers need to do it as part of their corporate social responsibility. The government's policy intervention is important to this end. The country's daily milk production is about 27,000 tonnes, but the demand has dropped to half of the production. Milk prices also declined in the rural areas, causing a colossal loss to farmers.
TDS: The government has declared some stimulus packages for the small and medium farmers. Is it enough?
Jahangir: The stimulus package of Tk 5,000 crore is mainly for the poultry, dairy, fish, and horticulture sectors. Farmers of these sectors can have loan with an interest rate of 5 percent. The crop farmers, however, would hardly be able to reap benefits from the package.
The farmers who cultivate paddy, maze and wheat will have to depend on the general farm loan whose interest rate is 8 percent. Also, many of the small and marginal farmers cannot avail such loan. I suggest that the general farm loan be disbursed at 4 percent interest rate. And, if possible, the interest rate of the stimulus package should be lowered to 2 percent. This is because profitability in agriculture is very low. The small and marginal farmers who cannot avail farm loan should be provided cash subsidy. Agriculture should be given a high priority because there is a serious risk of famine, otherwise.
TDS: We are largely dependent on imported fertiliser and insecticides. Will there be any crisis of farm inputs?
Jahangir: Yes, many of the countries are under lockdown. So, export-import is heavily restricted. It is high time we assessed the needs of farm inputs for the coming Aman and Boro seasons and started talking to the countries on how we can get the required farm inputs such as fuel, fertiliser, seed, and machinery. Remember, we are now dealing with coronavirus outbreak. Our next challenge will be managing the food crisis.