On the Road Again to Asia

As the plane landed, I could only recount the many other times I had been in Bangladesh. Last month, I boarded a plane in Toronto and once again, made my way toward Dubai and ultimately Dhaka Bangladesh. When I first ventured there 27 years ago there were 92 million people. Today, there are 160 million plus. For a farm boy from Dresden, the most densely populated country, just gets bigger and more fascinating.

While in Bangladesh, I lectured at East West University in Dhaka, on the Canadian blue economy. I also got to meet with prospective grain buyers who were looking to learn more about Canadian grain and who also wanted to buy Canadian grain. There I was, sitting in an office, going over the basics of grain pricing, FOB Vancouver, vs FOB Australia and FOB Ukraine. With 160 million mouths to feed, and 8% annual economic growth rates, Bangladesh is an important grain customer.

It is not easy traveling across the world. It might sound exotic, but as I grow older, it’s more of a workout. Asia is a cornucopia of sounds, smells, people, animals and noise which can assault your senses. I’ve had them assaulted more than once. In fact, this was my 7th trip to Bangladesh over the last 27 years. I can be difficult, and nothing makes sense culturally. There is the noisy din in the cities almost everywhere, but rural Bangladesh is pristine. However, there are challenges and staying healthy while there is one of them.

However, I’ve learned how to adapt and meet the challenges of being dropped into Asia. This time around, I didn’t drink as much tea as usual because coffee seemed to be available. It was available along with Burger King, Starbucks, Krispy Kreme and Pizza Hut. Simply put, over a 27-year period since I’ve been traveling to Bangladesh, incomes are rising and with that, food demand has been rising. It is a microcosm for what’s happening is Asia as a whole.

Sandwiched between India and China, Bangladesh benefits from its big neighbours. Here in North America, we know that Asia holds the key to the growth in food demand on this globe. As incomes rise, these countries demand more and more food. I’ve written that ad nauseum about China. However, when I’m in Bangladesh, you can see it up close. You can feel the big effect of China and India, just over yonder. Incomes have risen and poverty is tangibly less on the streets. It has the 32nd biggest economy in the world and it’s just getting bigger.

It just so happened I found myself at the other side of the world when geopolitics were boiling. With an Iranian missile striking a Ukrainian airliner about a week before my flight, it gave me pause. I usually fly over Iran in route. It was telling as the airliner approached Iran. It averted Iranian airspace both going and coming back. That wasn’t the end of my geopolitical adventure. As everybody knows, coronavirus reared its ugly head when I was gone. In Asia, face masks were everywhere. With two flights per day going to China from Bangladesh, everyone was worried it was only a matter of time.

Coronovirus changed everything, while I was gone. What started small, grew in intensity to where there are 563 deaths as I write caused by the virus. However, as an agricultural economist, that translated into a soybean price meltdown while I was away, dropping almost 90 cents per bushel since January 5th. In fact, coronavirus is the Black Swan affecting all commodities. The epitaph has not been written yet. It is horrendous.

Needless to say, food is almost as ubiquitous in Bangladesh as it is here. Food stalls are full of every type of food imaginable. However, there are still empty stomachs. While there I was told of the famine in 1974 and how some of my friends had to line up for food rations. This was caused by ships being blocked into Bangladesh as geopolitical games were being played out on the high seas. With those memories still real, food production is very important. That’s only one reason I had a meeting with grain buyers when I was there.

Clearly, I sell grain locally, but not to direct players overseas. My role was one more of convenience. At the university one player knew I was coming, and he brought the company people along. At the end of the day I reached out on twitter and got several contacts back in Canada who could facilitate the export of grain. In this case, it was lentils and chickpeas. Hopefully next will be corn and soybeans.

We’ll see. As I left for the Dhaka airport to leave, there is always a sense of quiet anticipation. The cultural assault never stops there and although I enjoy it all, two weeks is about enough. Needless to say, I’ll be back someday. I’ve got so many friends there. Next time, the story will probably be even richer. Hopefully more Canadian grain will get there too.