Bangladesh

Onion Production: Seed crisis deals setback

After earning handsome profits last year, onion farmer Kawsar Mollah from Mothpara village in Pabna's Sujanagar upazila targeted cultivating onions on 10 bighas of land this year.

But he is unable to afford to buy exorbitantly priced onion seeds, that is, if he can even find the amount he needs.

Over the past few weeks, Kawsar has been going to Rajshahi for onion seeds, scarce in his locality.

"I needed 10kg of seeds but I managed to get only 4kg from Rajshahi. Each kilo of seeds cost Tk 7,000-8,000."

Last year, Kawsar had bought each kg of onion seeds (Taherpuri variety) at Tk 1,000-1,200.

Due to the high market price of onion earlier this year, most farmers in his area sold off all their produce and did not keep any seeds, he added.

This correspondent came across similar stories on visiting the country's biggest onion-producing hub in Pabna last week.

Md Babu Sardar, of Rai Shimul village in Sujanagar, said he usually cultivates onion on five bighas and winter vegetables on two bighas.

"But the high demand for onion inspired me to cultivate onions on all seven bighas this year," he said.

But he was only able to buy 2kg onion seeds from the local market, at a cost of Tk 14,500.

"I need 4-5kg seeds for cultivating the entire land. If I don't manage to get it in the next one or two weeks, I may miss the season."

Babu had to borrow money in order to buy the seeds, which he got last year for Tk 1,200, as he didn't anticipate needing so much money for seeds.

The seed crisis in local markets has now led to rocketing prices, which has reached the highest ever level in the country -- and farmers are bearing the brunt.

Seed traders are taking advantage of the lack of fixed-price seeds and charging excessive prices, farmers alleged, due to the lack of monitoring by the government.

UNSTABLE SEED MARKET

Amidst a scarcity of local seed, Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC) has also stopped selling fixed-price seed to farmers, sources said, badly affecting the onion seed market.

Talking with The Daily Star, Md Abu Rayhan Tarek, manager of seed marketing at BADC, said the corporation usually supplies some onion seeds every year but farmers mostly depended on local markets and seeds marketed by private companies.

BADC was unable to reserve sufficient onion seeds this year, he added.

"Last year, BADC supplied five tonnes of onion seeds but this year only has a reserve of 3.4 tonnes," Tarek said.

"BADC, however, could not sell any onion seeds to farmers at the government fixed rate [Tk 3,500 per kg] because we have supplied all the seeds available to the Department of Agricultural Extension [DAE] for their departmental projects."

Most of the farmers did not preserve seeds last season due to the high price of onion, which in turn caused a price hike of onion seeds this year, he added.

The current retail price of local onion is Tk 75 per kg, although the price at one point exceeded Tk 200 during the past few months.

DAE Director General Md Asadullah told The Daily Star that seed trader syndicates were destabilising the seed market -- so, the DAE is planning to give seed aid to small farmers.

"Due to the seed crisis, we plan to distribute seed aid among 50,000 farmers in 21 high onion-cultivating districts. Each farmer will get 250g onion seed per bigha," the DG said.

The yearly demand of onion is approximately 32-33 lakh tonnes but annual domestic production has been 25-26 lakh tonnes in the last few years, leaving a shortage every year that causes the crisis, the DAE DG added.

Imported onions -- largely from India -- make up the shortfall, and prices leapt when India banned onion exports earlier in September.

A total of 25.6 lakh tonnes of onion were produced last year across the country, cultivated on 2.38 lakh hectares, according to the DAE.

This season, the DAE has targeted a total of 2.50 lakh hectares of land for onion cultivation -- of these, 1.85 lakh hectares for seed onion cultivation and 65,000 hectares for bulb onion production, said Khandaker Md Rashed Iftekhar, control room in-charge of DAE (Khamarbari).

This season's onion production target is 29.5 lakh tonnes, he added.

Bulb onion, known locally as "kondo peyaj", has already been cultivated and is expected to be harvested from mid-December, Rashed told The Daily Star, and farmers are also preparing to cultivate seed onion from this month.

A total of 1,142 tonnes of seeds are needed to achieve the onion cultivation target, he added.

PRODUCTION COSTS UP BY 30PC

Meanwhile, farmers said onion production costs have risen by around 30 percent due to the price hike of onion seeds as well as higher labour costs.

Where last year he spent Tk 25,000-30,000 for cultivating each bigha of onion, this year he needs Tk 35,000-40,000, Md Jowadul Islam Montu, a reputed onion trader from Manikhat village in Sujanagar upazila, told The Daily Star.

Labour costs went up too, he said, where last year he paid day labourers Tk 400 per day, he paid Tk 600 this time.

Montu added that onion seeds from the retail market are of poor quality, so he is unsure about onion yield in the coming year.

DAE DG Md Asadullah said despite the scarcity of good quality seeds, he expects the cultivation target will be achieved.

"Although we do not have sufficient quality seeds this year, we have still taken a large target for onion production as an additional yield of two lakh tonnes of onion is expected this year."

The DG claimed, despite the high seed price and other costs as well as quality concerns, farmers will manage to get the necessary seeds and cultivate their fields as targeted.

"Seed crises provide a good lesson for the agriculture department. We have a plan to increase production of quality seeds to bring up the capacity of the department so that farmers are not harassed in this way in the future," the DG said.

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