10 June 2013

Zimbabwe: Climate Change Threatens Food Security


FOOD security in Zimbabwe is under threat from multiple factors, but these are not insurmountable with sufficient attention and careful planning. Pricing is the biggest factor crippling the production of maize - the country's staple - and the focus crop in this piece. Then there is climate change whose effects have compromised the future of food production and security. The scourge has slashed by a significant margin the size of land suitable for optimum maize production and has altered various other key variables in crop production such as rainfall and ambient temperatures.

For only US$295 per tonne, farmers, mostly small-scale, have over the past decade progressively dumped maize production in favour of tobacco, where fat cheques are guaranteed.

Just two weeks ago, Grain Marketing Board chairman Mr Charles Chikaura urged Treasury to release funds timely to encourage increased maize deliveries from farmers US$80 million for the current season. He had reason to be distraught. Maize deliveries plunged 67 percent or 168 600 tonnes in the 2012/13 season from two years earlier, to just 81 200 tonnes and were 62 percent down over the year.

On average, Zimbabwe produced 1,7 million tonnes of maize annually since the early 1990s to 2000. Deliveries have nosedived ever since.

Mr Chikaura expects deliveries of 100 000 tonnes this year, if the producer price is attractive and if farmers are paid on time. That compares with annual grain requirements of 2 million tonnes. Already, the new buying price of US$350/tonne is not that appealing. Farmers, including smallholder women farmers, say the new price is a joke and does little to encourage maize production in large quantities.

These disgruntled maize farmers are more likely to jump ship and join the tobacco bandwagon. As a matter of fact, the number of smallholder tobacco farmers is expected to reach 80 000 in the coming season, from just a few thousands five years ago.

Obviously, Zimbabwe will be forced to fork out millions (which it does not have) to import grain to cover local shortfalls, as it has already done this year with the Zambia deal. Although maize may struggle to compete with tobacco for money, some structural adjustments to the factors of production will make maize worth the while for the farmer. If Government can't pay more for maize, then it must concentrate on eliminating most of the production costs. It should beef up its inputs programme, that of availing more fertilisers and seed to support the new breed of farmers, especially the more capable ones, and negotiate better deals with the owners of capital to increase cheap agricultural funding.

The UN Development Programme latest update report on the Millennium Development Goals released in May says Zimbabwe must support its land policy, increase input and credit to communal and commercial farmers and strengthen bilateral and multilateral partnerships for resource mobilisation, to improve agriculture production.

Since the early 1980s, Zimbabwe has always managed to produce maize in surplus and simultaneously producing tobacco, the main cash crop which peaked at 256 million kg in 1998. The landscape has changed, and though it may take time, but with careful planning it is possible maize production can be raised to near self-sufficient levels.

Climate change, poor eating habits

Zimbabweans are wasteful and should eat responsibly. Even when one in three people go to bed hungry everyday, it is incredible Zimbabweans afford to dump a cumulative 105 000 tonnes, or 8,1kg per person of food, as waste every year.

In a country where memories of a suffocating food crisis of 2008 are still fresh, and where the future of agriculture is seriously threatened by climate change and variability, consumption patterns must change, at all costs. Irresponsible eating and other unsustainable consumeristic lifestyles are contributing over 5 percent of carbon emissions worldwide, the main agent of climate change and global warming.

The threat of climate change to agriculture and food security in Zimbabwe is real.

Mashonaland West, the province that produced the bulk of the maize crop in the last season at 47 500 tonnes, is under attack from climate change, increasingly becoming arid. The province lies mainly in the Agro-ecological Region 3, one of the key food producing zones in Zimbabwe, but the region is shrinking.

According to research by Kayinamura (2009), Region 3 has shrunk by 14 percent, unwillingly sparing more land into the drier Regions 4 and 5, which have expanded 5,6 percent and 22,6 percent respectively.

Lying in Region 2, another high-rainfall and major food producing zone, is Mashonaland Central, which delivered the second most maize output of 12 200 tonnes in the 2012/13 season. That region has diminished by 49 percent, similarly giving up prime agricultural land to aridity.

So, by some margin, climate change has compounded the problem of food production in the country. In addition to poor pricing, it has redefined prime arable land, caused temperatures to rise (0,7 degrees Celsius increase since 1900) and tended to precipitate droughts, with unmatched frequency and extremity.

"If changing climatic conditions continue to expand these regions, traditional agricultural systems will become increasingly unsustainable," says a December 2012 report, "Climate Change Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation in Zimbabwe", by the International Institute for the Environment and Development.

"Even diversified livelihood systems with a livestock component are expected to become more vulnerable." By 2030, agriculture output in Zimbabwe is expected to decline by as much as 50 percent due to changing climatic conditions, according to the UN Panel on Climate Change.

Annual mean rainfall is forecast to decline by up to 20 percent in 70 years, hitting agriculture hard, the biggest contributor to Gross Domestic Product and employment, 26 percent and over 60 percent respectively.

"Rising temperatures and increasing rainfall variability notably drought, are expected to exacerbate declining agricultural outputs, further compromising economic growth and stability, employment levels, food security, demand for other goods and poverty reduction," said the report.

The current and future changes in climate call for greater astuteness in development planning to minimise risk and bolster food production and security.

Switching to smaller drought-resistant grain varieties such as sorghum and millet are now being widely pushed by agriculturists, as a sustainable way of escaping hunger bred from the volatile climates.

Less dependence on rainfed agriculture, improvements in irrigation and water harvesting technologies are other options, among many. Zimbabwe is now a net food importer. The proportion of people living below the Poverty Datum Line, the UN's measure of hunger, increased from 29 percent in 1995 to 58 percent in 2005, worsening to unconfirmed levels by 2008.

God is faithful.


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