opinionBy Tonderai Matonho
Harare — DESPITE scoring significant gains in controlling population growth rates, Zimbabwe, like a few other African countries, needs to make further improvements and also put in place more infrastructure investments and other boosts for agriculture to secure food security and achieve sustainable economic growth.
With early prudent investment policies in education and health after independence in 1980, Zimbabwe has long realised that continued population growth rates strain the resources required to support increasing numbers.
Another realisation was that poverty reduction together with improved health and education would contribute to slower, more balanced population growth rates.
Demographers say the rate of population growth should be reflected by indicators such as the total fertility rate, infant mortality rate, illiteracy and HIV and Aids incidence and prevalence.
However, according to experts, one bone of contention is the development of agriculture and the challenge of food supply in Africa, which is closely linked to population growth.
It is important to note that food supply is a national priority attainable either by intensifying crop production or by increasing the area of land under cultivation.
Experts assert that agriculture is a contentious issue in that Africa now needs more than 20 million tonnes of grain each year. This surpasses the current production.
With the population growing at more than three percent per year in many African countries and agricultural production increasing by a lower percentage, the deficit will continuously increase.
Thus, the pertinent question is how African producers can narrow the gap between supply of grains and other staple foods in light of rising demand.
Food policy planners say hunger is not unique to Africa but it is more widespread and acute than in any other region of the world.
In the past, food shortages have been bridged to some extent, by purchases and by food aid. However, neither of these options will offer adequate relief in the future.
According to policy planners, Africa's decreasing ability to purchase food is depicted by the Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that by 2010 the continent will need US$28,7 billion to import food to supplement regional production.
However, it is unlikely to be receiving more than US$12 billion from the export of agricultural products, mainly due to lower productivity and inadequate finance.
Given this anomaly, food policy analysts insist that there is no alternative for Africa but to increase food production regionally. This is not an unattainable target.
Despite prevailing low productivity, environmental degradation and urban migration, Africa's situation, though desperate, is by no means hopeless, planners claim.
However, in order to institute further improvements to arrest and maintain balances between population growth and food security, experts note that rapid but measured action is undoubtedly called for in terms of policy changes.
According to experts, these policy changes should prioritise rural development like what Zimbabwe has embarked on. With that, more emphasis should be put on production, processing and marketing of food products.
There is no denying that the rate of increase in population in Africa is among the highest in the world and many see this as a fundamental contributor to under-development.
However, experts say there are many examples worldwide where increased population has made possible increased production.
At the time of the International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994, one delegate wrote: "Each new mouth comes attached to two useful hands and a brain, by which more food can be produced."
More interestingly, critical development experts have also noted that in most Western societies the term population stereotypically evokes images of an explosion, mainly of uneducated developing world people, in countries that cannot repay their debts.
Further, "population also evokes the notion of pressure which pushes people beyond their borders and into camps. Generally, the use of the term increasingly triggers alarm and has come to evoke something threatening, something which casts a shadow over the future and something which in northern latitudes looks yellow or brown".
Furthermore, the International Food Policy Research Institute has observed: "What people are missing is the fact that food production is a major source of income for the poor and the prospects for economic development in developing countries are linked to agricultural progress."
If people in rural communities of so-called poorer countries could grow and sell more food locally, they could both feed themselves more reliably and become prosperous enough to buy food produced elsewhere. However, according to INFPRI, this requires more investment in markets, roads, farm credit and other boosts for agriculture.
Experts have noted that the increase in population, leading to escalating food demand, has often led to cultivation of marginal land and subsequent land degradation. This has reduced the resource-base from which to get future production.
In order to achieve increased production that is sustainable, experts have noted that this damaging demand, degradation and the depletion of resources must be broken.
Many scientists believe that more intensive agricultural methods could boost yields and yet reduce environmental degradation by concentrating cultivation on the most productive soil. Marginal land would be retained for pasture and forestry.
Agricultural specialists further note that integrated farming systems utilising annual crops, perennial trees, appropriate livestock and fish ponds could maintain and even restore soil fertility while also providing higher yields of diverse food products.
Experts also observe that too much reliance on subsistence agriculture is an indication of the failure to develop markets and agro-industries. These industries add value, provide employment and frequently provide substitutes for costly imports.
What is more, they also start the process of infrastructure development, transportation and financial services and subsidiary economic activities that contribute to overall sustainable economic growth.
Zimbabwe, like many other African countries, faces a considerable challenge in providing a substantial proportion of its food requirements.
However, researchers, consultants and experts in population and development issues believe that the continent has the natural resources of soil energy, water and people.
What is often lacking are the financial resources and the political commitment to prioritise the rural community in national development.
It is often observed that Africa is prone to drought and famine and that there is little that can be done to prevent either of these.
However, researchers assert that it is poverty, not drought, that results in famine. IFPRI's Vision 2020 notes that "often poverty has led to famine".
Experts argue that if poverty was to be reduced by increasing rural incomes, there would be less famine and greater prosperity in Africa despite droughts and population growth.