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Bangladesh is one of the leading rice producers in South Asia, with its rice-dominant agriculture sector showing encouraging performance for two decades now. This achievement is vitally important for the country, with rice production and supply being a significant determinant of Bangladesh’s food self-sufficiency and security.
Production of rice, especially the Boro variety (cultivated in residual water in low-lying areas), has facilitated Bangladesh’s journey from import dependence to food self-sufficiency. Total production of the three main varieties of rice paddy (Aus, Aman and Boro) increased from 28.8 million tonnes to 36.45 million tonnes in 2019, making up 88% of total grain production in the country. Wide availability of rice means millions of people can afford a staple food source, contributing to poverty alleviation.
The government showed strong commitment to ensuring food security this year by supporting farmers in the early harvesting of Boro, which was in danger because of forecasted flash floods and a lack of workers due to lockdowns. The government provided facilitation services and supplied mechanical harvesters on credit, and a combination of innovative local interventions in labour mobilisation, technology and strong monitoring together resulted in a successful harvest.
Boro rice accounts for more than half of Bangladesh’s total rice production. This year, due to pandemic-induced economic shock, a good Boro season was even more important for farmers. For many, it could be their last resort to avoid hunger if lockdowns continued. Good harvests also make it easier for the government to buy enough for public sale at a reduced price (commonly known as open market sale, or OMS), which regulates prices, or to redistribute as relief. 175,000 tonnes of rice were distributed among more than 67 million people up until 15 June, according to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief. An additional 100,068 tonnes have been allocated for distribution before Eid-ul-Adha (the country’s annual mass religious sacrifice).
Even though the Boro harvest was good, why is the price of rice so high?
The government was anxious to ensure that farmers received good prices for Boro production, to help to ease their pandemic-related financial troubles. As a result, the government procurement target was doubled – to 800,000 tonnes. The procurement price stayed at the same level – BDT 1,040 (USD 12.3) per mound (equivalent to 40kg).
Farmers received higher prices for their rice than they did in 2019 – a study by the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development found that farmers received approximately BDT 765 per mound from millers – but there was still not enough rice in the market.
There are four key reasons for this. Firstly, the cost of production this year was approximately 13% higher than last year, meaning that even though farmers were offered higher prices, profit margins were slim – so they were less inclined to sell. Second, looking at an uncertain future and an unstable market, many farmers opted to keep additional stock for personal consumption. The normal practice is to keep enough just to tide families through to the next harvest (Aus) – but this year many decided to keep extra for safety. Thirdly, this year was marked by significant demand-supply gaps. Bangladesh faced a number of natural disasters in 2019, resulting in widespread economic hardship, particularly in rural areas, so food consumption in those areas dropped. People simply could not afford to eat as much. Coarse rice is the most common staple eaten in those areas, so demand for it dropped, and the price soon followed suit. In 2019, the government procurement target was also half of what it is this year, and there was not a lot of relief distributed, which compounded the price drop. In parallel, increased migration to urban areas (where finer varieties of rice are more commonly eaten) resulted in an increase in the demand for, and therefore the price of, fine grain rice. This year, as a result, farmers opted to produce less coarse and more fine varieties of rice. Unfortunately, COVID-19 flipped the market dynamics. Huge need for relief meant that demand for coarser varieties, which are cheaper and more preferable as relief items, shot up. Parallely, there was sudden mass migration to rural areas because of fewer employment opportunities in urban areas, and, as a result of drastically reduced socialising and closed restaurants, there was almost no demand for finer varieties of rice often used in rich dishes such as biryani and pulao for weddings. Finally, farmers who were more financially solvent and saw the price of coarse rice increasing in the market, especially following Cyclone Amphan, hoarded stock.
The millers found themselves in a difficult situation. First, because the farmers were less interested in selling, the millers had to offer them higher prices. Second, the millers had to accept rice with higher moisture content – often soaked with Cyclone Amphan-induced rain – meaning that their costs rose as they dried it. Third, labour and transportation costs rose as a result of lockdowns. According to a number of millers interviewed by BRAC staff, the production cost this year was between BDT38 – BDT42 per kg, while the government offered only BDT36. As a result, many millers decided to sell the finished rice to wholesalers instead of to the government.
This presented a new challenge. Millers offered the rice to the wholesalers on credit, as is the custom for that product. Wholesalers were reluctant to buy though, as they still had much of the rice that they purchased from millers in May and June in stock. Why?
The retail price of rice went up in March-early April because of panic buying following the first death from COVID-19. Wholesalers eagerly raised their prices in response. The millers, who generally keep the largest portion of the stock in their yards, followed suit – and benefited the most. All the players in the supply chain benefited from the panic buying, except for the farmers (who generally cannot afford to keep any extra stock) and the consumers, who ultimately absorbed the price of everyone else’s profits.
In late-April, people grew cautious with their money, realising that the pandemic was going to last for more than a few weeks. Buying slowed and prices slumped. Retailers rushed to dump the stock they had acquired to keep up with the increased customer demand (which they had bought for the higher prices), and suffered the first losses in the supply chain. These losses rapidly trickled down, with wholesalers then also rushing to dump their higher-priced stock. Lockdowns began, and retailers then had to suddenly close, temporarily bringing the entire supply chain to a halt.
When retailers came back to their stores in mid-June, most of them still had a large quantity of high-price rice to sell. They had to recoup their losses, so they artificially created ‘shortage’ by not buying more rice from wholesalers. This caused another domino effect, with wholesalers hiking up the wholesale price in response, which increased their inventory turnover time.
Millers were stuck in a difficult situation, sandwiched between wholesalers and farmers. They still had rice from the previous harvest, which they could not sell because wholesalers did not want it, and they also could not access credit to buy new rice from farmers, because the wholesalers had not sold the previous quantities of rice which they had bought from them – and the credit system in Bangladesh works such that buyers do not have to pay until a shipment has been sold. This slower than average wholesale sell had two consequences. Firstly, millers had to take credit at a higher rate of interest to procure Boro rice from the farmers. Secondly, they had to reduce the credit limit for the wholesalers. Consequently, the cost of the production for millers went up and a significant quantity of ready-to-market rice is now piling up in the millers’ silos.
The first obvious secondary impact of COVID-19 is that the government could not meet the declared procurement target. As of June 16, the government procured just 4% of the target, which is half of what it was at the same time last year. This failure can potentially have huge consequences. The first consequence is that the government will not have enough rice to run open market sales. Not being able to regulate the price by making it available at a lower price to the public means people could end up paying any price for it – which would affect those living in poverty the hardest. The second consequence is that if the government needs to distribute rice as relief for either COVID-19 or another natural disaster, the required rice will need to be bought at a higher price. As of 3 June, the public stock of the staple stands 29% lower than that of last year, and flooding is predicted across Bangladesh’s northern regions in coming months.
The second obvious secondary impact is a rise in the price of rice. As described, the production price for farmers and millers have increased. Wholesalers and retailers are not only buying rice at higher prices, but they are also both trying to recoup losses. As a result, the price of Boro coarse rice has increased 47% at the retail level and 49% at the wholesale level compared to the first week of April 2020, and 36% and 33%, than this time last year (Department of Agricultural Marketing). In brief, customers are ultimately paying for the whole market system inefficiency.
The government is considering reducing tariffs on rice imports to ease the pressure. This will give a negative signal to Aman producers ahead of cropping season, which may lead to the price drastically falling just before harvesting. This would not have an overall positive effect on the economy, and would particularly negatively impact the rural economy.
In this context, we would like to suggest supportive measures at multiple levels;
Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh is Head, Programme and Enterprise Communications at BRAC and Nahrin Rahman Swarna is Policy Analyst, Advocacy for Social Change at BRAC