The European Union (EU) banned the import of betel leaves from Bangladesh around seven years ago, in 2014, due to the presence of Salmonella bacteria in the product.
Within three years Bangladesh was able to produce betel leaves free of Salmonella, but the country has not been able to resume its export yet, said officials of the Plant Quarantine Wing of the Department of Agricultural Extension (DEA) and Bangladesh Fruits, Vegetables and Allied Products Exporters Association (BFVAPEA).
Exporters said most of the bans on various products are imposed by European countries because they constantly test the goods. They stop importing goods if they find any problem in them. The process of fulfilling their conditions to resume exports of a banned item is a time-consuming process. They also claimed that Bangladesh has weaknesses in negotiations.
People involved in this sector said more than 60% of the country's agricultural export earnings come from Europe.
Nazmul Islam, an exporter of agricultural products, told The Business Standard, "The EU has its own standards. Problems arise if you cannot send the product by maintaining their standard. We need a lot more preparation for this. So, if there is a ban on the export of any product, it takes a lot of work to get permission again."
According to the Plant Quarantine Wing, Bangladesh has already fulfilled the EU's 22 conditions, including: laboratory tests, zone-based product production, farmer selection, farmer and exporter training, soil tests, irrigation water tests, production situation monitoring, field inspection and monitoring, and certification.
Authorities concerned sent a letter about fulfilling the 22 conditions of the EU on 31 August last year, but Bangladesh has not yet received permission to resume the export of betel leaves.
Additional Director of the Plant Quarantine Wing Md Shamsul Alam said, "We are always urging the EU to open the export of betel leaves. But they are wasting time with assurances of giving their approval."
According to the Export Promotion Bureau, betel leaf exports in 2012-13 were $38.1 million, which dropped to $29.48 million the following year. After that, betel leaves were exported to the Middle Eastern countries only, but the amount is very small. In the fiscal year 2019-20, the export of betel leaves has come down to $1.98 million.
The ban on exporting betel leaves has made an impact on the total exports of agricultural products.
In fiscal year 2013-14, the total export of agricultural products was $209.29 million, which dropped to $141 million the following year. Bangladesh exported agricultural products worth $164.5 million in fiscal year 2019-20. Agricultural products from Bangladesh are mostly exported to Europe, followed by the Middle East.
Earlier, the EU banned importing seedless lemons from Bangladesh due to the presence of a certain type of bacteria and fungal disease in them in fiscal year 2013-14. Export of this lemon resumed this month after more than seven years.
In fiscal year 2015-2016 the EU warned Bangladesh about how its dhundul (sponse gourd) and chichinga (snake gourd) had insects called machhi poka (Bactrocera cucurbitae). Although there was no ban, Bangladesh halted exporting the two vegetables for a year to ensure that there were no more insects and started exporting them again one year later.
Exporters said the zone-based cultivation of products is essential to sustain exports to European markets. In addition to that: the training of farmers and inspectors, the training of exporters, knowledge of proper use of pesticides and its application, the expeditious export certificate from government department, soil health tests, testing of water used in agriculture, a goods conservation system, making arrangements for quick exports after harvesting agricultural products, and packing goods near airports are also important in this regard.
Additionally, exporters suffer a lot as there are not enough accredited labs for testing agricultural products for bacterial or pesticide residue.
Agriculturist Manjurul Islam, an advisor to BFVAPEA, told The Business Standard that, "Buyers want the results of lab tests on whether the pesticide residue is in the product. So we have to go to the Bari [Bangladesh Rice Research Institute] to check. The quality of the product falls during this period."
"For a long time now, we have been demanding an accredited lab at which we can easily test all the necessary products. This reduces the chances of problems after sending the product," he said.
Moreover, most of the agricultural products are exported by air, mainly from Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka. But the central packing house of the product is in the capital's Shyampur area. Bringing the goods to Shyampur for packing and then transporting them to the airport takes hours due to the situation of traffic in the city. This, too, causes a problem for exporters.
Md Manjurul Islam claims that it will be possible to increase our exports three to four times, very soon, if the required facilities are provided.