Dhaka: Potatoes are not high on the menu for Bangladesh’s 140 million people, but a surge in rice and wheat prices has prompted the government to popularize the humble spud as a substitute food.
“Think potato, grow potato and eat potato,” was the main slogan of a three-day potato festival in Dhaka last week. Bangladesh’s government is waging a campaign to convince millions of Bangladeshis to embrace potatoes as a staple food due to record-high rice and wheat prices and an unusually good crop of potatoes that will need to be eaten quickly before they rot. Rice price has doubled over the past year and 1kg of the commodity now costs 40 taka (about Rs25), almost half the daily wage of a factory worker. Wheat costs 44 taka for 1kg, up 150%. By contrast, 1kg of potatoes sells at 13 taka in Dhaka, and far less in the countryside.
Although an excellent carbohydrate substitute to rice, it is hard to convince Asians, who often don’t regard a meal to be complete without a bowl of rice, to switch to spuds. “Potato cannot replace rice as the main staple, but I think they will soon realize it can be a very good substitute at a reasonably low cost,” said Nazrul Islam, director of Agriculture Information Service.
Potatoes are regarded as a safe crop in Bangladesh as they are planted in October and harvested by the end of February when the land is dry and before annual floods ravage the country.
Potatoes are now Bangladesh’s second biggest crop after rice. Consumption has risen from an average of 7kg per capita in 1991 to 24kg in 2007, according to agriculture officials. Bangladesh’s government, which recently ordered 500,000 troops to eat potatoes, hopes potato consumption will jump drastically as experts say it is unlikely rice prices will return to previous lows. This year, Bangladesh produced its biggest ever potato crop of more than 8 million tonnes (mt), 3mt more than last year. Officials say Bangladesh can preserve only 2.2mt of potato in 300 existing cold storages.
“It means we will have about 3mt left,” said Harunur Rashid, managing director of Canteen Stores Department, a supermarket chain run by the army that organized the potato festival. “This is huge, we have to consume it.”