The government is going to double the amount of food grains it planned to import a few months ago amid high rice prices, fast depleting stocks and a flood ravaging crop fields in the north.
Ahead of a stocktaking meeting of Food Planning and Monitoring Committee on the tight food situation tomorrow, officials told The Daily Star that public sector import for 2017-18 fiscal year would be increased from nine lakh tonnes to 17 lakh tonnes of food grains.
They told The Daily Star that the meeting is likely to approve rice import target of 12 lakh tonnes, instead of the existing plan of six lakh tonnes, and five lakh tonnes of wheat, instead of the previously set three lakh tonnes.
Six ministers and 10 senior secretaries would sit for a meeting of the committee tomorrow to decide how to tackle the situation.
The country's food security took the first hit this year when flash floods devastated paddy fields in the north-eastern haor regions, wiping out 10 lakh tonnes of potential Boro harvest.
The matter was further complicated with fungal attack (rice blast) that ruined harvests of many farmers.
However, the government was slow to respond. It took over two months to reduce the rice-import duty.
With granaries not replenished fast enough, rice prices increased by 47 percent than that of last year, ministry sources said.
The Food Planning and Monitoring Committee is comprised of ministers for food, finance, commerce, agriculture, LGRD, and disaster management and relief, and 10 secretaries, including the cabinet secretary.
It is the committee's responsibility to monitor food security with secretarial and policy support from the Food Planning and Monitoring Unit (FPMU) of the food ministry.
Worried over food security and feeling the need for an urgent stocktaking ahead of what appears to be a devastating flood, the FPMU held an appraisal session yesterday, a government holiday for Janmashtami.
After the June 20 decision to cut rice import duty to 10 percent from 28 percent, as much as 2.5 lakh tonnes have been imported by traders.
It is projected that until the next rice crop (Aman) is harvested in November, private traders would import up to 15 lakh tonnes, the sources said.
The prime minister also hinted more imports. Speaking on Sunday at the Bangladesh National Nutrition Council meeting in Dhaka, Sheikh Hasina said the government was procuring food grains from the international market to face the challenges caused by the ongoing flood.
"We've already procured food grains from various countries and more are coming … ," she said.
Tomorrow's meeting would review the current flood situation. Rice-price volatility would largely depend on the next harvest of the staple and if the flood prolongs, Aman crops would be hurt, sources said.
Agriculture Minister Matia Chowdhury told this correspondent on Sunday that a good harvest of rain-fed Aus rice is expected to make at least 27 lakh tonnes of rice available in the market soon.
She hoped for a good Aman harvest as well, provided floods do not do major damages.
Director General of the FPMU, Naser Farid, told The Daily Star that if the floodwater receded by August and the deluge did not drag on beyond the first week of September, farmers planting Aman would get a scope for recovering from earlier losses.
The decision to increase food grains import is being taken at a time when the government has a stock of 2.7 lakh tonnes of the staple but would have to distribute 4.5 lakh tonnes between September and November among 50 lakh ultra-poor under a programme.
Under the programme initiated late last year, the underprivileged are sold rice at Tk 10 per kg.
A food official said, "We're lining up rice and wheat imports in a way that allows us to deliver the 4.5 lakh tonnes to the ultra-poor, at least 50,000 tonnes more to people in the haors, and one lakh tonne as gratuitous relief [GR] to flood victims."
As the government's Boro procurement drive fell flat with only a fifth of the targeted 10 lakh tonnes achieved so far, the official said, it now needs to import more rice to keep a sufficient carryover stock for the future.
The sources said learning from 2016-17's low food stock, the food ministry was vouching for a better reserve so that year-end stock in public granaries remain close to 10 lakh tonnes. Last fiscal year, the year-end rice stock dropped below three lakh tonnes, the lowest in six years.
Market sources said prices continuously showed an upward trend since the flash flood in the haors. Traders and rice millers further pushed the prices up by refraining from importing rice with 28 percent duty.
The government then could not go for market intervention because of low food stock.
Bangladesh, the world's fourth-biggest producer of rice with over 3.4 crore tonnes output, uses almost all its production to feed its population. It often requires imports to cope with shortages caused by natural disasters such as floods and droughts.
But since 2011, the government did not need to import rice although rice traders have done so, mostly from India.
However, since May, the food directorate has floated international tenders to buy 3.5 lakh tonnes of rice and had also made a deal with Vietnam government to bring in 2.5 lakh tonnes more.
The government has also signed two more memorandums of understanding (MoU) with Cambodia and Thailand but has not finalised the prices yet.
Sources yesterday told The Daily Star that the food ministry was expecting to strike a deal with Cambodia in the next 10 days.