ZIMBABWE: More food shortages anticipated

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Erratic weather is likely to hurt Zimbabwe's harvest this year, with the country ending up with an even higher maize deficit than in 2007, according to the latest report from the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS-NET).

Heavy rainfall, with flooding in several districts, in December 2007 forced many farmers to scale down their planned crop area, as they were unable to prepare the land and apply fertiliser, FEWS-NET's Food Security Update for February 2008 commented.

Despite the setback, a Zimbabwean government assessment said the area planted to maize, the staple crop, had increased by six percent compared to the 2006/07 cropping season. An earlier crop assessment by the government, which media reports last week seized on, reportedly said only 14 percent of land targeted for maize had been planted by December.

However, the impact of a dry spell in February, which affected cereal crops in various stages of growth across the country, has yet to be assessed, said a regional agricultural expert who did not want to be named. "So no one can actually predict what the deficit could be."

Zimbabwe had a grain deficit of about 891,000 tonnes in 2007 - almost 50 percent below the 2006 harvest - on account of adverse weather, severe economic constraints that led to shortages of key inputs, deteriorating infrastructure, especially in irrigation and, most importantly, financially unviable government-controlled prices, said a joint Crop and Food supply assessment mission by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

Food production declined in Zimbabwe after a land reform programme began in 2000, where white-owned farms were redistributed among black farmers. Most new farmers have been unable to utilise the prime land allocated to them because of lack of inputs and incentives. Poor rains over several seasons also hit output.

The commercial farming sector now produces less than one-tenth of the maize it harvested in the 1990s, and less than five percent of the country's total maize production, said the joint FAO/WFP 2007 assessment report, which based its findings on government data.

The country needs at least two million tonnes of maize to meet its national requirements and has had to import food from Malawi and Zambia. "It is too early to forecast ... [2008] production and the food deficit," said Kisan Gunjal, who led the joint assessment mission to Zimbabwe.

"However, judging from the various factors, such as better rainfall distribution ... [in 2008], as opposed to a significant drought ... [in 2007], and some 6 percent increase in maize planted area according to the official estimate, the production ... [in 2008] is likely to be close to an average of the past five years."

The FAO's Crop Prospects and Food Situation report for February 2008 has also predicted low harvests in 2008 because of the high price of inputs such as fertiliser, seed, fuel and tillage power, and severe flooding in many districts.

More imports needed?

The Zimbabwean government and humanitarian agencies have managed to move an adequate amount of cereal into the country, according to the FEWS-NET report, and an outstanding cereal deficit of about 278,000 tonnes is likely to be met. The government has brought in 239,827 tonnes of maize from Malawi, with the balance of 166,403 tonnes to come.

The 2008/09 marketing year will start with low stocks. "While the outcome of this year's very wet season is not known, there will be localised deficits, and the country will again need to import a significant amount of cereal, likely to be more than was required ... [in 2007], to meets its needs."

Accessibility to food has been affected by the inability of the state-controlled cereals agency, the Grain Marketing Board, to deal with transport and fuel shortages, exacerbated by further damage to the already poor state of the road network by heavy rains in the country since December 2007, the FEWS-NET report noted.

Food security and prices

Food security in urban areas remains critical, given the shortages and erratic supplies of basic commodities on the formal market, and inadequate humanitarian support in these areas.

Inflation has reached more than 100,000 percent in Zimbabwe. "However, irrespective of the exact rate of increase, it is obvious that the nominal cost of living is rising at much faster rate than people's incomes and their purchasing power," Gunjal commented.

Despite the government's imposition of price controls in 2007, the availability and supply of basic commodities on the formal market remained erratic. "A few commodities such as milk and bread have become more available in January 2008, though the selling prices are unaffordable to most poor households, and rapidly rising: the cost of a standard loaf of bread increased by over 300 percent from October 2007 to early January 2008."

Other basic commodities such as sugar, cooking oil, maizemeal and meat have remained scarce in the formal market but were available on the parallel market, where prices are still rocketing. The prices of white sugar, cooking oil and beef went up by between 60 percent and 250 percent from November 2007 to January 2008.

To address the scarcity of food and other essential commodities in urban areas, the Zimbabwean government plans to introduce "people's markets", which would sell basic goods at fairly affordable prices, FEWS-NET said.

WFP spokesman Richard Lee pointed out that it was difficult to determine an accurate number of people in need of food in the urban areas, which was why they had not considered food aid distribution, and preferred to focus on the large numbers in need in the rural areas, where food was inaccessible.

In February 2008 WFP managed to provide food aid to 2.4 million people in Zimbabwe's grain-deficient rural areas and, along with the Consortium for Southern Africa Food Security Emergency, which is funded by the US Agency for International Development, intended to feed more than 3.5 million people in March.

Source: IRIN