Towards self-sufficiency

Bangladesh became a perennially food-deficit country in the late 1950s when population pressures began to take their toll. Threats of mass starvation have been felt several times since independence owing to droughts and flooding, but a famine of significant proportion only struck the country in 1974 when world food production fell to an all-time low and world food prices rose sharply. At that time, there was insufficient food aid and the country did not have enough foreign exchange resources to buy all the grain it needed in the world market. With subsequent increase in food aid allotments from donors and the government's import programs and increased capacity to finance food imports, the days of severe famine were put to an end. However the majority of the rural populations are still afflicted by malnutrition and semi-starvation. In fact, a downward trend in the daily per caput intake of cereals, pulses, vegetables, fruits and meat can be seen over the last few decades in rural areas as well as at a national level. For example, rice intake in rural Bangladesh in 1995/96 was 427 g per caput. In 1981/ 82, 1975/76 and 1962-64, the levels of intake were 451, 493 and 505 g, respectively.

Bangladesh's dependence on food imports and, in particular, food aid throughout the years has been cause for concern. Food imports in Bangladesh currently represent approximately 18 percent of total imports and absorb 34 percent of total export earnings. In 1990/91, food aid represented 98 percent of total food imports but this has been reduced considerably to representing 30 percent of total food imports in 1995/96. The significant difference has essentially been made up by private sector imports which began in 1992/93.

The overriding objective of all agricultural policy and development since independence in Bangladesh has been to achieve self-sufficiency in food grains and, in particular, rice production. In reality, what has actually been sought is a substantial acceleration in the growth rate of domestic food production and a decreased dependence on or elimination of food aid in the long term. The emphasis on accelerating food production in Bangladesh stems from the country's excessive dependence on food imports, its precarious external account situation and its perceived comparative advantage in food production. Bangladesh has excellent soils, rechargeable aquifers that are easily tapped for irrigation, an abundance of low-cost labor in its rural areas and a climate that allows crops to be grown the year round.
Source: SOFA 1997

The role of rice

With the availability of high-yielding varieties (HYVs), rice has contributed significantly to the progress towards self-sufficiency. Despite the significant inroads wheat has made in the Bangladeshi diet, rice has been and continues to be the favored food grain in the country and constitutes 95% of the cereals consumed. Rice cultivation is the major source of livelihood for the large majority of farmers of Bangladesh and it accounts for more than 74 percent of cultivated area, 83 percent of all irrigated area and 88 percent of the total fertilizer consumption in the country. In a social, political and economic context, rice is a significant crop in Bangladesh; it dominates all other economic activities and consumes a considerable amount of foreign exchange.
Source: SOFA 1997

Foodgrain production

Although Bangladesh continues to be a net importer of food, importing on average 1.5 million tonnes of rice annually, it has achieved substantial gains in food grain production during the last two decades. From 1969/70 to 1992/93, the cropping intensity increased significantly with food grain production almost doubling. In the crop years from 1989/90 to 1992/93, Bangladesh produced bumper harvests of food grains, with a record production in 1992/93 of 19.5 million tonnes (much higher than the average of 16.4 million tonnes during 1985-89).

In 1993/94 and 1994/95, food grain production declined, as a result of droughts and floods as well as the farmers' response to the fall in the price of rice from the bumper harvest of the previous year. This was evidenced by more than a 2 percent reduction in the area sown, a decline in irrigation demand and more than a 4 percent decline in fertilizer consumption.

The country faced one of its largest food grain shortfalls ever in 1994/95, owing in part to a severe fertilizer crisis and leading to a resurgence of large food imports and high cereal prices. This situation continued until April 1996 when good boro (dry season) harvest prospects started to dampen the market.
Source: SOFA 1997

Current state of the agricultural sector

The recent trend in food grain production has not been positive. The agricultural sector is now confronted with low and stagnating yields of most crops, including rice, and the food gap between domestic production and demand has actually widened. In spite of the fact that rice production has increased at a higher rate than the rate of population growth during the last decade, and despite the fact that there are both public and private imports each year, the daily per caput food availability of food grains in Bangladesh has not reached the standard food grain requirement or target consumption level of 454 g since 1991/92. Given that food availability is not equally distributed, it is clear that the situation is worse for the poor than these figures would lead one to believe.
Source: SOFA 1997