The agriculture ministry has initiated a move to reduce the import duty on raw cashew nuts from 90 per cent to around 7 per cent in a bid to boost the country's non-traditional agro-processing industries.
"The National Board of Revenue (NBR) has already consented to the proposal of the significant duty reduction on the import of cashew nuts," said Abdur Razzaque, the minister of agriculture.
Razzaque made this comment while speaking at a virtual meeting on 'Food Value Chain: in the time of Covid-19', organised by the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DCCI).
"Gradually, cashew nuts imports will be made duty-free," the minister said, adding that the government distributed 50,000 cashew nut saplings among various farmers.
The government also helped private sector importers bring in five tonnes of a hybrid variety of raw cashew nuts from Cambodia, with which six lakh units of cashew nut saplings can be produced.
Besides, the government also facilitated private sector investors in the processing of non-traditional food items so that the products can add value to the local food chain and processed food industry, according to a statement from the agriculture ministry.
Bangladesh is doing well in terms of rice production and could soon have surplus output, Razzaque said.
"Although the agriculture sector's contribution to GDP is not the same as it was in the 1980s, the sector is still profitable and we get many industry raw materials from it," he added.
Bangladesh now produces various non-traditional fruits like dragon fruit, cassava, and strawberry.
The agriculture minister also informed that the government has allocated a two-acre plot in Purbachal to establish an international standard accreditation laboratory and agro-processing centre.
While presenting the keynote paper at the event, M Burhan Uddin, a professor of the Department of Food Technology and Rural Industries at Bangladesh Agricultural University, said Bangladesh is one of the leading fish producing countries in the world with an annual production of 42.77 lakh tonnes.
Of the total quantity, shrimp and prawn production accounted for 2.54 lakh tonnes in 2017-18.
In the poultry sector, small and medium enterprises could generate employment and reduce poverty but the sector needs more institutional and policy measures.
In this regard, he recommended developing an enabling environment for agro-businesses, lowering the cost of doing business, increased technology adaptation, food safety, access to finance and introducing contract farming.
Uzma Chowdhury, finance director of Pran-RFL Group, a local conglomerate, said the food value-chain covers the interventions of producers, processors, distributors and consumers.
"Ensuring a fair price for growers will make the sector sustainable," she said.
Pran produces cassava on 6,000 acres of land in the northern part of the country.
"If we can maintain a good balance of trade with other countries, those countries will not impose any tariff or non-tariff barriers upon Bangladeshi exports," Chowdhury added.
She also called for a food testing lab to be built to ensure consumer safety.
Moreover, a modern transportation network will help reduce the waste of perishable agro-foods. Chowdhury also urged the government to introduce insurance facilities for farmers.
Although Bangladesh is doing well in fish production alongside the poultry and dairy industries, small entrepreneurs in these sectors are not engaged in the value chain and are usually deprived of a fair price, said DCCI President Shams Mahmud.
Mahmud suggested that the 2.23 lakh hectors of unutilised land in the country should be used for cultivation.
He also recommended increased market research and capacity building for private sector producers and processors.
The DCCI president demanded removal of the monopoly of intermediaries that contradict the development of e-commerce platforms for the agro-market.
Monzur Morshed Ahmed, a member of the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority, said undisposed batteries and chemicals are contaminating agro-products.
"There are several players in the food safety process and there should be a certification body to monitor check and balance, interventions and coordination among the stakeholders," he said.
For hotels and restaurants, the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority introduces a grading system, he added.
Saleh Ahmed, chairman of the Kernal Foundation, said local consumers are losing confidence.
He called for the implementation of good agricultural practices and good manufacturing practices to avoid food contamination.
He further called for the adoption of on-farm and off-farm food safety measures, infrastructure development, technology and international standard packaging.
"We need an interface of integrated industry, education and research," Ahmed said.
He asked Razzaque to create a separate division or cell under the Ministry of Agriculture to support agro-processors.
Md. Iqtadul Hoque, general secretary of the Bangladesh Agro Processors' Association, said farmers should be well aware of the actual demand of agro products so that they can produce as per demand.
Hoque also called for a specialised cold storage facility. The processed food industry was not very affected by the Covid-19 fallout, he said.
In regards to the food value chain, he called upon those concerned to reduce the influence of middle-men in the supply chain.
"Contract zoning will be more viable than contract farming," Hoque added.
Malik Talha Ismail Bari, director of Unimart-United Group, called for creating awareness among downstream agro-producers in regards to storage, production, backward linkage and easy transportation systems for a sustainable food value chain.