The View from Asia

     As the plane took off from Toronto, next stop for me was Asia.  In mid January, I boarded the largest passenger jet in the world, the Airbus A380 and once again set out for Bangladesh, my 5th trip there in the last 20 years.  It still amazes me in our modern world; you can get on a jet liner and be seemingly a million miles away a day later.

After a stop in Dubai, always an interesting stop, I headed out to the capital Dhaka, Bangladesh the next morning.  It was 4 years ago I was last there.  Squarely situated between China, India and Myanmar, I was hoping to see big things.  It seems every time I go there the country gets richer.  You cannot live in that neighbourhood of the world and ignore the impact of India and China.  This place, Bangladesh is booming.

The last time I was here in 2009, there were 120 million people.  Now, in 2013 there are 150 million people.  Hmm, how does that happen?  I’ll digress.  Needless to say with economic growth rates of 7% annually, even with the population increasing, the poverty rate has decreased from 39% to 26%.  Nobody dies from a lack of food in this country anymore.  Things continue on the march up for many people.  The country is changing, growing and expanding and it’s all because of the economic growth being generated by being a neighbor to both India and China.

Nevertheless, it is no a panacea here.  Despite the impressive economic statistics, per capita income is approximately $800.  So there are still problems here, those 150 million people have work to do.  The world is so different just a plane ride away.

That $800 pre capita income is telling from the get go.  When you travel to Bangladesh, its always crowded and not by a little bit.  Crowds are everywhere, and privacy is something that can only be hoped for.  On hitting the Dhaka airport yesterday, you have to get used to the shoving, pushing, lack of personal space.  The airport has a wild nature to it and when you hit the open spaces outside the building, its like you are in a different world.  In many ways, it’s not for the feint hearted.

When you hit the streets from the airport it is chaotic, dusty, wild really, all part of being a huge Asian capital.  Rural Bangladesh on the other hand is stunningly beautiful, quiet and dominated by agriculture.  42% of the labour force works in agriculture.  It’s significantly down from what it used to be.  Yes, even here you’ll find tractors getting into the fields.  However, much of it is painstakingly hard labour.

What always amazes me is how this country feeds itself.  With 150 million people between the spaces of Windsor to Kingston Ontario, that is surely a challenge.  It is a huge domestic market that must be serviced.  They produce a lot of rice here and all sorts of other fresh crops.  It all gets consumed.  Still, there are empty stomachs.

In 1990 there was only 3000 acres of corn grown in Bangladesh, but now there is 900,000 acres.  This actually topped out at 1.3 million acres in 2007, then the price of rice spiked higher and production fell.  All of this production is consumed domestically for animal feeds.  Bangladesh continues to import corn for its other needs.

22-27 MMT of rice is imported into Bangladesh on an annual basis, which seems like a lot but is only 4% of annual domestic production.  Obviously with rice being a staple it is very important to keep price in check.  “Rice price shocks” like they had in 2007 are not welcome.

While here I will be speaking at United International University in Dhaka.  The Junior Economists Forum, made of undergraduate students has invited me to speak on global agricultural markets and commodity marketing.  I did that 4 years ago at the same University.  It is a real highlight to be able to speak on the other side of world, to people of a totally different culture and try to make yourself understood.

That always does not come easily.  However, maybe I’m crazy enough to just keep trying.  The last time I spoke at the University was in 2009, great experience, but sometimes, its so difficult to connect across cultures.  However, what I’m witnessing here is special.  This is “Asian demand” in spades, something as an agricultural economist; I talk about all the time. Needless to say, this time, I’m not talking from my North American perch.  I’m coming to you from the cacophony, which is Asia.  Who knows, maybe I’ll sell a few North American soybeans here along the way.