15 April 2011

Zimbabwe: Serious Food Shortages Loom

FOR the eleventh year in a row Zimbabwe will again fail to feed itself, giving credence to arguments by critiques of the country's chaotic land reforms that the exercise was poorly executed. As the 2010/2011 agricultural summer cropping season draws to an end, an estimated two million Zimbabweans are said to be in the queue for food aid.

Although government has dismissed reports from the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNET), which monitors food security around the world, that 2,2 million face food shortages, it recently announced that six provinces out of 10 required food aid after yet another unsuccessful cropping season.

Reports indicate that a high-powered delegation comprising representatives from the government, private millers and the State granary, the Grain Marketing Board (GMB), would be in Zambia soon on a private visit to secure a sizeable tonnage of the staple grain to bridge the deficit. Ironically, most of the former white commercial farmers whose farms were expropriated by President Robert Mugabe's previous administration have taken up farming in Zambia, which is now producing maize surplus to that country's domestic requirements.

With a population of over 13 million, the country consumes approximately 1,7 million tonnes of maize per annum and when maize for stock feeds is added the total annual domestic requirement tops 2,1 million tonnes.

Current output is about 20 percent of the required national demand considering last year's output of 400 000 tonnes.

A government crop assessment carried out in January found that the country had more than two million hectares of maize planted, up from 1,8 million last year, and was expecting to harvest 1,7 million tonnes, but already six provinces have been identified as food insecure.

Government has already acknowledged that thousands face hunger this year and GMB has announced that at least 244 000 tonnes of grain were available.

Maize fields in most parts of the country have been reduced to dust, diminishing hopes of good harvests.

Combined estimates by the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assess-ment Committee along with the Food and Agricultural Organi-sation and the World Food Programme Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission put the current estimated food insecure population at about 1,7 million people.

"About 1,7 million people are estimated to be food insecure during the current peak lean season running from October through February. About 400 000 of the food insecure people are estimated to be in urban areas and those in the rural areas are outside of the central districts and are classified to be moderately food insecure," the assessment report indicated.

Agricultural experts said the maize crop in the provinces of Matabeleland South and North, Masvingo and some parts of the Midlands was a complete write off due to insufficient rains in the second half of the rainfall season.

According to the 2010/2011 Rainfall Season Summary from the Meteorological Services Depart-ment (MET), in terms of season quality, the 2010/11 season was not very ideal for rain fed agriculture, although hydrologically it was a good season.

"Normal rains were received over most of the country apart from some parts of Masvingo and Matabeleland South, which had below normal rainfall. The start of the season was normal in most parts of the country rainfall; distribution was good in space and time in November and December," the report said.

January was characterised by a very wet spell, which is rather unusual climatologically, while February was characterised by a prolonged dry spell of more than three weeks and in the southern districts spanning up to mid-March.

"February experienced a dry spell for two to six weeks and the effects were more pronounced in the southern districts where most crops are a write-off. The effects of the water-logging, nutrient leaching and poor weed control in January and also the dry spell in February impacted negatively on the crops." The MET office's Water Requirement Satisfaction Index indicates that from the onset of the season to the third dekad of March this year, there was a continued deterioration in the crop condition especially in the southern and eastern districts of the country. This has been attributed to the dry spell, which occurred in February and persisted into March in Masvingo and Matabeleland South provinces.

Areas in Muzarabani and Mbire in the Zambezi valley had below average to poor conditions.

Zimbabwe Farmers Union vice president, Berean Mukwende told The Financial Gazette that 2011 would be a difficult year for cereal and grain producers as most of the crops especially maize was a complete loss.

"The crop situation in terms of harvest is a total disaster especially in the southern districts. The dry spell affected most of the maize crops resulting in the national yield being negatively affected," Mukwende said.

Despite overall improved food security conditions in the country, still the 2011 cropping season was affected by the weather prompting the nation to look into the effects of climate change on agriculture.

Bridget Chilala, director of trade and markets at the Alliance for Commodity Trade in Eastern and Southern Africa, a specialised agency at Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, said food security in most countries had been undermined by population growth, environmental stress, food, fuel competition, natural disasters and human conflicts.

"Demand for food driven by population growth and rising incomes is expected to double by 2050 and food availability in developing countries will need to increase by 60 percent by 2030 and double by 2050," she said.

At least 80 percent of the necessary production would come from increases in yields and cropping intensity, with 20 percent coming from expansion of arable land.

"Agricultural production and food distribution was likely to fail to keep up with food demand and prices will be driven up," Chilala added.

The food security situation in Zimbabwe has remained worrisome for policy makers for the past 11 years especially after the country embarked on the fast track land redistribution exercise that parcelled out millions of hectares of land to indigenous black farmers.

FEWSNET projects that food imports will continue to be a significant component of food supply in the outlook period, and a marked proportion of people will continue to rely on food supply markets for their basic needs at a time when global food and fuel price trends are negatively impacting on the purchasing power for poor households.

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