To ensure producers receive fair prices, as well as have food security, accurate information on agricultural production is a must. It helps make timely decisions, including whether to import food or not. However, a recently published news report found significant discrepancies in the food grain production data from the two major government wings: Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) and the Ministry of Agriculture, revealing a gap of more than four million tonnes in the fiscal year 2020-21.
According to BBS, the production of food grains (rice, wheat and maize) in the mentioned period was 42,809,000 tonnes, while the agriculture ministry reported it was about 46,829,000 tonnes.
The Business Standard recently talked to the former Research Director of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), Dr Mohammed Asaduzzaman, to learn more about data discrepancies, opaque market monitoring and policy requirements.
How important is data accuracy when it comes to food grain production?
We have an assumption on the food demand, or how much food like rice and other grains the whole consumer base intakes. Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) conducts consumption surveys periodically.
Estimation of food demand should follow a future target of food production. If the production volume is adequate, there will be no shortages. If not, food import is required.
Whether the foreign exchange rate turns volatile or not, food imports will be prioritised if production fails to meet the demand. Otherwise, consumers will remain half-fed or worse, starve.
Hence, it is important to get a clear idea about how much food our country has in its stocks after domestic production. It is to be noted that the production volume does not represent the stocks in the market because a portion of the harvests ends up as wastage. The amount of wastage needs to be considered. Although the government predicts about 10% wastage, independent studies suggest that around 7% of production gets damaged before reaching the market.
Previously, designated wings did crop-harvesting surveys, particularly on rice. The Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) under the Ministry of Agriculture conducted these surveys. BBS did similar tasks. However, I have no clear idea whether this type of survey has been carried out at present or not.
If the survey is based on only interviews rather than on-field visits (crop-harvesting estimation), actual data will not surface. Outcomes of different survey methods will be different. The prevailing common perception is that government officials tend to show exaggerated production data to make the higher-ups happy.
Previous examples suggest that DAE's food estimations were higher than that of BBS. DAE and BBS usually sit together to minimise the difference in data.
I remember that satellite surveys were done when Matia Chowdhury was the agriculture minister. The satellite surveys helped get a more acceptable production figure.
I don't think that crop estimation has been made following scientific methods. Maybe I am wrong, but the surveyors have never revealed the methodologies they follow.
How does incorrect or exaggerated food estimation misguide policymaking?
Several years back the Food Ministry wanted to know the reasons behind the rice price hike despite the DAE estimating a good harvest of paddy. The ministry requested BIDS to dig into the matter. BIDS found discrepancies in the survey reports.
If anyone asks me to choose between exaggerated and understated data, I will take the latter for policy making. This is a cautious approach. I will not be pessimistic, at the same time I will not be depending on higher figures unless fully supported by scientific methods not only statements.
Whether exaggerated or understated, we get only the data of reserved foodgrains procured by the government. Can the consumers access actual data on food hoarded by the private sector?
No. There should be a market assessment about who keeps how much food in their possession. What we get from the Department of Agricultural Marketing (DAM) is only the pricing trend and the record of money transacted between sellers and buyers.
It is to be noted that what the government announces as its food stock is mainly for emergency and strategic use. This number does not paint a clear picture when it comes to food security. We can say the food stock at the government warehouse is 'adequate' only when every consumer has an acceptable minimum access to food.
The problem is that there is no clear information about the individual's access to food other than through somewhat periodic BBS surveys. And the lack of information hampers food distribution during an emergency. Presumably, there is a food crisis across some pockets. But it is not clear whether the affected consumers can access minimum food stock individually.
Given the Russia-Ukraine war and wheat export ban by supplier countries, shouldn't Bangladesh draw up a plan about food sourcing for the next two years?
Of course. According to news reports, the commerce minister has said there would be no food crisis as the government has communicated with food supplier countries. Repeatedly, the government officials have said that there will be no problem in importing wheat from India through the government-to-government channel.
The concerned officials can better say whether the government is undertaking the initiatives as for short-term crisis management or for a future plan.
My observation is that the government always tends to handle the immediate crisis. Planning for the future does not get much importance. I would like to say that the government should feed people for the country's political stability. For this, food inflation needs to be controlled by balancing supply and demand.
Recently a news report caught my attention. The story was that a service provider was now paying Tk150 for his single midday meal which was Tk90 a few days ago. Can you imagine how that person is managing his daily expenses when the food price has risen more than 50%?
Almost in every instance of emergency food import, vested interest groups in the private sector cash in on the situation while the end consumers bear the burden. What is your take on this?
The government cannot deal with everything. Some things should be dealt with by the private sector too. Unfortunately, there is no foolproof oversight over the private sector. The government does not know how much food a private entity stocks and what quantity of food it actually supplies to the market. What the government does is, it occasionally raids the hoarders.
Why is a raid necessary to know how much food stock is in the warehouse? There should be import data preserved by the government and a system to bind importers to submit stock ledger to the authority on a weekly basis. Since Bangladesh has been branded as a digital nation, there is no problem with digitising the system. The digitised system will help the authority identify the hoarders.
The problem is that the commerce ministry or the food ministry lacks the manpower to maintain all those accounts. I would not blame any particular entity. This problem has been consistent for many years and the unfortunate thing is that there is no effective measure to address it.
We can see persistent claims that there will be no food crisis here. Only a half-fed or a starving person can feel the real crisis.