Into Asia Where Food Demand Is Exploding

As the plane took off from Toronto I was getting set for another odyssey into Asia. The big Airbus A-380, the largest passenger aircraft in the world rumbled through the heavy snow in Toronto and lifted off with a matter of fact like dropping a planter into the soil. 16 air hours later with a stop in Dubai, the plane landed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It was the sixth time a plane had touch downed in Bangladesh with me in it over the last 25 years.

When I first touch downed in Bangladesh in 1993 there were 92 million people in the country. In 2018 there are now 160 million people in the country. With an annual economic growth rate of approximately 7%, the economy has quadrupled in size since I first touched down there in 1993. Of course, many of those trips have been documented in this column over the last 32 years. I was back to visit my colleague, Dr. A.K Enamul Haque, who is an economics professor at East-West University in Dhaka Bangladesh. We had done our Masters degrees together at the University of Guelph way back in the late 1980s.

Bangladesh is an agricultural dynamo, with most of the people making a living off agriculture. It is changing over time as the economy continues to grow and people move to the cities. Rice production dominates the rural countryside of Bangladesh, but there are also vegetables, corn and lots of tropical crops like Tea and citrus fruit. With the relatively small land area and 160 million people it is the most densely populated country in the world. Much of its annual agriculture production is consumed in its domestic market as all those people have to eat. Of course, it is still a poor country and there are still empty stomachs. Needless to say, Bangladeshi farmers do an amazing job of feeding the people.

You have to mentally adjust to go there. What you say? Simply put, your senses are assaulted when you arrive in Bangladesh especially if you are used to our Western culture and our rural countryside. Even though Bangladesh is classified as a “frontier economy” with amazing economic growth rates, it is still a poor country. Some people might call it a “poverty theme park”, with some scenes of human depravity beyond imagining. If you are not ready for it when you get off the plane it bothers you deeply. Your loyal scribe has gotten over that years ago and I’m completely comfortable walking through a land where everybody is one abject step away from poverty. Food has a dominant place in everybody’s imagination. Famine once stalked this land post liberation war (1971) as the country with India’s help broke away from Pakistan.

In 2018, there is food everywhere. Markets burst with food stalls with stacks of oranges, bananas and other food products. Live chickens are sold everywhere. Despite that, there are still empty stomachs, even though over the period of 25 years that I’ve been there, there has been a reduction in poverty rates, which is tangibly evident on the streets and in rural areas. It is an economic success story beyond imagining. Sandwiched between India, Myanmar with China just to the north, Bangladesh is truly benefiting from its geography. You can feel the influence of China and India when you are there.

As per usual, your loyal scribe was asked to speak to graduate students at East-West University. I was asked to speak on Canadian environmental policy and how that impacts Canadian agriculture and Canadian farmers. I spoke about pesticides, fertilizer use, crop rotation, cultural practices, climate change and biofuels. I was speaking to a graduate student class on Environmental Economics Law at the University. I led the class in a lecture and discussion for 90 minutes. As usual, as I’ve done that in the past, it was a great experience. Speaking to young Asian students about their economic potential is always a powerful moment for me.

I say that partly because as a Canadian farmer and agricultural journalist for DTN, you’ve heard me refer to Asia many times as this hungry market for agricultural commodities. Simply put, I can say that 1 million times, but I wish I could take every one of you on the plane with me to Asia at least once. I say that because there is nothing like experiencing the powerful moments I feel when you are actually in Asia seeing the impact of high economic growth rates, the resultant increase in income, which is resulting in increased food demand. There is nothing like seeing it up close and realizing, this part of the world is incubating agricultural commodity demand in spades and its only going to grow stronger.

There are still issues there, which include, politics and empty stomachs. Poverty is tangibly less every time I go back. However, the poverty theme park still exists at some level. Needless to say, Asia will remain the bastion for untapped and seemingly insatiable agricultural commodity demand. Yes, I’m going back someday. Who wants to come along?