Grow crops like onion abundantly to cut import dependence | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 23, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:15 AM, September 23, 2020

Grow crops like onion abundantly to cut import dependence

Bangladesh continues to be among the fastest-growing economies in the world. Agriculture plays a major role in the growth of the economy and providing employment. Despite being one of the densely populated economies in the world, Bangladesh has made admirable progress in achieving food security over the past decades.

The current Covid-19 situation has made us realise the significance of the agriculture sector in Bangladesh. All the news reports, talk shows and discussions indicated that there will be an increased emphasis in the development of the agriculture sector in Bangladesh post-Covid-19. Facilitating the extra population in the sector will not be a simple task. A short-, mid- and long-term plan is needed so that the extra force can be utilised properly.

Due to the pandemic, a huge number of labour forces will be forced to return to Bangladesh from the Middle East and other countries. Already at least 78,043 workers returned home from 26 countries since April, according to figures published by the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment on August 23.

People are returning from Dhaka city to villages so it will not be a suitable choice for them to plant and harvest agricultural crops. In both cases, it is expensive and time-consuming. New technologies like harvesters and tractors are already getting popularity in this case.

We have to keep in mind that for domestic consumption, agricultural output will not increase that much and there maybe, in some cases, reduction a little bit. Each person consumes 367 grammes of rice daily, down 11 per cent from 416gm in 2010, according to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2016.

The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) also found that daily per capita consumption of wheat grain dropped 24 per cent to 19.83gm in 2016 from 26gm in 2010.

Exporting agricultural goods will not be simple because of phytotoxicity and other quality issues. Then how can agriculture provide extra employment or play a vital role in this situation? Now the option is to reduce dependency on our agricultural goods import. Largely we import wheat, maize, onion, garlic and ginger. The total import of these goods is huge in value. We grow all of these crops to some extent.   

If we can cultivate these agricultural products, then the import cost can be saved by Tk 15,100 crore. To produce these agricultural crops, we need 1.71 million hectares of land.

We have 15.2 million hectares of cultivable land whereas only 0.21 million hectares arable land is barren. On the other hand, we can engage a large amount of the labour force of about 95 million. Now the labour requirement seems very unusual because of current manual production practices. If we use a semi-manual process for production, then the requirement may drop down to 50 per cent.

In order to accumulate this production, we have to adopt proper cropping pattern management of production. We need 10 per cent diversification of our total cultivable land. For example, aman paddy takes short time to provide yield so we can use this aman field to produce onion and garlic after aman harvesting. Then farmer can cultivate late boro or ropa aush in the same field. By using modern technologies like harvesters and transplanters, crop loss can be reduced. Through the use of high yield variety, production will increase and land usage can be saved.

We need to focus on summer onion. Currently, we are producing 2.3 million tonnes of onion in 0.24 million hectares of land against the demand of 3.4 million tonnes. So, need another 0.104 million hectares of land to reduce the reliance on imports.

We don't cultivate the summer variety now because of seed scarcity in the season. But it can be a good source of onion during summer. This variety can give a yield of up to 30-32 tonnes per hectare within 2-3 months whereas we get 10-12 tonnes per hectare during winter onion. This variety has 2-3 months of shelf life.

Now the question is: where will we cultivate this crop? Many farmers in Munshiganj cultivate potato once a year and the area of cultivating potato is 38,500 hectares. The area faces floods for 4-5 months after harvesting of potato. But before flooding, they get 2-3 months. During this time farmers can cultivate this summer onion. By cultivating this variety, we may get around 1 million to 1.1 million tonnes of onion which can reduce the necessity of imports entirely.

We need 0.8 million tonnes of onion in three months considering the shelf life of summer onion and the size of the domestic market is about Tk 4,000 crore considering Tk 50 per kg. To cultivate this amount, we need 28,000 hectares of land and 207 tonnes of seed. And the manpower requirement is 6.8 million.

Major source of this seed is India and the price of per kg seed is Tk 5,000-6,000. The production cost will be around Tk 900 crore. A detailed study is required in this case. The seed of summer variety onion needs to be available for production.

We are not in a crisis for garlic. But there is a shortage of large size garlic suitable for using. We are producing 0.5 million tonnes of garlic in 79,000 hectares of land. We import about 0.6 million to 0.7 million tonnes. Nowadays home-makers prefer large size garlic instead of the small local variety. That's why most of the import is needed. So, we need to focus on research for producing large size garlic. Some 95,000 hectares of land are needed for garlic cultivation to minimise the import.

We don't have adequate storage facilities for onion, garlic or ginger. Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC) has a storage facility for onion but it has a capacity of storing only 200 tonnes. By tuning our existing cold storage or by building new cold storage, we can store onion, garlic and ginger, which will narrow the gap between imports and local consumption.

We may also reduce potato cultivation to a certain level. Bangladesh produces around 11 million tonnes of potatoes every year. If we look at the existing situation, potato consumption of the country has been relatively steady over the past few years whereas export has declined. However, production has been increasing. As a result, farmers are struggling to sell their surplus.  

 We are on our way to achieving self-sufficiency in maize cultivation. Within five years, the production of maize has doubled because of proper planning and execution. We exported about Tk 146 crore worth of maize to Nepal in the last fiscal year. This is a great success in maize cultivation.

If we follow our success story in maize production and draw up a master plan for 3-5 years, we gain self-sufficiency. Today, farmers are connected digitally and information dissemination has become easier than before.

If we want to engage more people in agriculture then we must give priority to self-cultivation on imported spices such as onion, garlic and ginger. It will save a lot of foreign currency and cut external dependency. It will also create a good scope for the public-private partnership between the government and the private sector.

The writer is executive director of ACI Motors Ltd.

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