COVID-19 continues to cause multiple unprecedented impacts, not just on the health sector, but on the overall socio-economic growth worldwide, including agriculture, food security and food supply chain systems. It has already shed light on the underlying fragile conditions of our governing systems and infrastructures and has been an eye opener, demonstrating how delicately food supply chains across the world are interlinked. Its impacts on the agriculture sector is being assessed both globally and nationally. It is too early to say how this deadly virus will affect in our whole agricultural and food security systems. Of particular case for Bangladesh may be the risks that country may face in the rice sector, the main lifesaving and food security crop of the country.
Global data indicate, in 2019, the global rice production was 499.16 million tons, while 44.87 million tons was available for international trade. India, Thailand, and Vietnam together exported around 25.11 million tons (India - 10.60, Thailand - 7.58 and Vietnam - 6.58 million tons) and exports projection made by these three countries for 2020 is 26.50 million tons (India - 12.00, Thailand - 7.50 and Vietnam - 7.00 million tons). According to projection, India is supposed to be the number one rice exporting country in 2020.We have to keep in mind, during the global 2007-2008 rice price crises, India, in order to ensure their domestic demand and food security, decided to abruptly stop their rice export which eventually led to a sudden global increase in the price of rice in the international market. Due to this, rice prices in the international market spiked up to about USD 1084 per ton (before crisis it was USD 320-350 tons/ha). The current COVID-19 situation may again lead us back to the scenario when India may decide to impose yet another ban on rice exports. In that case India’s targets of sending 10 million tons of rice in international markets may be unachievable. However, market is diversifying and more countries are emerging as new players in the international food export arenas. For example, in 2019, Myanmar and Cambodia together exported 3.85 million tons with a further plan to export 4.00 million tons this year. The projected global rice production in 2020 is 496.67 million tons, which is 2.49 million tons less compared to 2019. On the contrary, 45.99 million tons will be available in the international market which is higher than in 2019. One of the possible reasons for this is the decreasing trend in rice consumption in exporting countries. In addition, current global rice carry-over stock is around 18 million tons.
In view of the above, the first question is whether there is any possibility of not achieving global rice production targets in 2020 due to COVID-19. If it is affirmative, then from where are the potential threats may emerge? First of all, in short-term perspective, regional rice supply chain is better than expected because of higher rice production in China and enough stock in India. However, due to ongoing COVID-19 containment measures such as home quarantine, isolation, social distancing and other regulations labour market has been severely impacted and shortage of labour is a looming threat to this sector. It is now vital that, in parallel to implementing measures to slow the rate of transmission of the disease, farmers have to harvest their produces in time by strictly maintaining social distancing during harvesting and transportation of rice to home and market. Ensuring more combine harvesters for farmers could be a viable option to mitigate the risks of labour shortages. Also, considering the time, availability, and resource constraints- a method called “mobile harvester” which are more intensive and efficient than existing system, may be adopted to solve the problem of shortage of harvesters and labours. Through this method, upon completion of harvesting by machine in one area, these harvesters can be immediately sent to other districts or divisions, thereby ensuring more efficient usage of the existing harvesters, thus reducing the demand of new harvesters required saving harvesting time. To ensure their more efficient and maximum usage, a mobility route map to guide the movement of harvesters from the early harvesting areas to gradually moving to the late harvesting areas, can be developed. The mobile method is widely used in India and has resulted in increased efficiency, cost effective, reduced crop losses during harvesting and decreased harvesting times, all of which contribute significantly to the profit of the farmers and owners of the harvesters as well. If due importance is not given to this vital issue of ensuring harvesting of rice is completed in time, country may not achieve production targets. Additionally, excessive delays in harvesting may cause production losses due to a variety of natural disasters. Although, projections say that the overall rice production scenario in 2020 will be satisfactory, additional attention should be given to the issues mentioned above in order to minimize any possible unforeseen losses that may arise due to COVID-19. If appropriate measures are implemented in time, COVID- 19 may not even bring any negative impacts to the projected scenarios.
Rice production scenario in Bangladesh is still encouraging but we have to wait until the end of June, when Boro rice harvesting will be completed, to assess the situation. Approximately over 20 million tons of milled rice to be harvested this year. It should also be kept in mind that in the same period of time, we have also to harvest nearly 0.6 million tons of wheat, 8.6 to 9.0 million tons of potato, and sowing of Aus rice crop. Later one is the main food security crop of the poor farmers of the country. As of now, unprecedented risks in the foreseeable future seems to be quite low, owing to the appropriate and timely interventions of the government. If there will be no climatic hazards until June, no immediate rice crisis in Bangladesh, because of COVID-19, is to be expected. Whether or not, there will be any short-term crisis will depend on how timely we can plant the Aus and Aman rice. It should be mentioned that the optimal sowing time of Aus rice is between March 15 and April 15, and for Aman rice is between July 15 and August 15. However, planting during these optimal phases of time was never achieved in the country. This being said, planting rice at the optimal time can increase rice production by 7-10 percent more. The challenge, now, is to try to plant Aman rice within the stipulated time and if successful, any medium-term rice crisis caused by COVID-19 in Bangladesh can be very well averted. In spite of that, if any crisis arises, the gap can be filled up through import as it happened in 2017- 2018. It is also worthy to mention that in 2019, Africa imported only 6 million tons of rice, indicating sufficient rice will be available in the international market in 2020. In any case, we should be fully prepared and develop our long-term rice production strategy under the umbrella of national food security framework in order to avert any unforeseen calamities like COVID-19, which could be more damaging than any other calamities that Bangladesh usually faces. In future, rice production strategy should be an integral part of national food security framework. Any policy or strategy that separates rice production systems from food security framework may be counterproductive. An early initiation of this process is a big challenge ahead of us.
The writer is a former Senior Technical Officer, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN