‘What will I do with so many pails of milk?’ | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 08, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:50 AM, April 08, 2020

TAMING CORONAVIRUS RAMPAGE

‘What will I do with so many pails of milk?’

Awash with milk and no takers, dairy farmers dump milk

With a heavy heart, dairy farmer Mohammad Rajib on Sunday emptied the pails of milk he got from his 14 cows into a manure pit.

All the sweet shops are closed, and most of his regular household customers are declining the milk for fear of contagion of the highly contagious, lethal pathogen, which has so far infected 164 and killed 17 in Bangladesh.

"What will I do with so many pails of milk?" asked Rajib, as he stood inside his barn in Cumilla. 

He is not alone.

Although the demand for basic foods has surged amid the coronavirus pandemic, liquid milk is not one of the products that customers are stockpiling. As a result, more than half of the daily produce is going unsold.

Compounding the dairy farmers' problems is the closure of bulk buyers like sweet shops, restaurants, hotels and schools and countrywide movement control order -- all to flatten the curve on the novel, pneumonia-like virus -- that have left processors to cut back on their procurement.

At present, the country's daily milk production stands at about 2.20 crore litres. Of them, milk processing companies procure 14 lakh litres and the rest is sold to sweet shops and households.

Pran Ballov Mistanno Vandar, a sweet shop in Narayanganj, used to buy 400 to 420 litres of milk every day before the outbreak of coronavirus in Bangladesh.

Now, the purchase has come down to 50 litres, said Porimol Ghosh, the owner of the shop. 

"As our shop is closed, why should I buy milk by the same volume?" he said.

Because of the crashing demand, some farmers are selling the milk to their neighbours at a heavily discounted rate, while some are processing milk into cream and clarified butter though the scope to store them is very limited.

And some -- like Rajib -- are just dumping the milk, said Shah Emran, secretary general of the Bangladesh Dairy Farmers Association (BDFA).

The dairy industry's woes signal broader problems in the global food supply chain, according to farmers, agricultural economists and food distributors.

The sector got hit harder and earlier than other agricultural commodities because the products are highly perishable -- milk can't be frozen, like fish, or stuck in a silo, like grain.

But, the milk processing companies could have come to the dairy farmers' rescue amid this desperate situation as they have the opportunity to process it into powder, cream and clarified butter and have the storage capacity, Emran said.

If they process milk into powdered form, farmers would be saved and the country would preserve about Tk 20,000 crore -- spent every year on milk powder imports, he said.

Only three companies have plants to produce dried milk, with their combined daily processing capacity being 3.5 lakh litres. The processing companies procure 6 per cent to 7 per cent of the milk produced in the country.

But, the milk processing companies are mired in problems of their own, in the form of limited storage, crashing sales and transportation disruption amid the movement control order.

"We are facing problems from field-level law enforcement agencies though the government has kept the dairy sector out of the purview of lockdown," said Kamruzzaman Kamal, director for marketing at Pran-RFL, a major agro-processor.

But, the demand for milk has plummeted overall.

Brac Dairy & Food Enterprise's sales have plummeted 50 per cent, according to its Director Mohammad Anisur Rahman.

"People are mostly buying essentials and foodstuff with longer shelf lives at this moment," he added.

But for dairy farmers like Rajib, who went to a university but has chosen farming as a profession, the longer the situation goes on, the more dire their circumstances become.

"If the current situation continues, we will have to shut the farm by selling the cows. Otherwise, how will I feed them?" asked Rajib.

In light of the struggles, the BDFA called for short-term and long-term government measures for the farmers -- struggling to feed the cows.

Daily feeding cost is Tk 160 to Tk 250 per cow, so farmers should be lent a helping hand in these testing times.

At the same time, farmers should be given interest-free loans, the association said.

It also called for reducing the price of feed and giving protection to the local milk processing sector by imposing higher duty on the imports of powdered milk.

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