ROME – High food insecurity persists in Zimbabwe in spite of improvements in agricultural production and a more liberal import policy this year, according to a report issued today by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP).
Good rainfall meant 2009 production of the staple crop, maize, is estimated to have more than doubled -- to 1.14 million metric tonnes -- an increase of 130 percent on the record low harvest of 2008, the report said. But the report also includes forecast production of winter-season wheat of only about 12,000 tonnes, the lowest ever, reflecting the high cost of fertilizers and quality seeds, farmers’ lack of financial liquidity and the uncertainty of the electricity supply for irrigation.
In March 2009, the Government of Zimbabwe abandoned the Zimbabwe dollar and announced the liberalization of most sectors of the economy. Adoption of the US dollar and South African rand as legal currencies has brought the annual rate of inflation down to zero from its 2008 high, calculated by the World Bank at 56 million percent.
Grain market reform includes free movement and buying and selling of grain in the country, removal of import duties and designation of the government Grain Marketing Board as a buyer of last resort to maintain a floor price for maize and protect domestic producers. This has filled the shops with products and reduced prices. Still, for most households without access to foreign currency, basic necessities remain out of reach.
“Liberalization of the grain market is the most important change in a decade for the improvement of agriculture sector in Zimbabwe,” said FAO Economist Kisan Gunjal, co-leader of the UN mission to Zimbabwe in early May that produced the report. “But the full impact of the reform on production next season remains to be seen, especially in light of financial liquidity constraints and other problems of economic transition.”
“This year’s improved harvest comes after two consecutive years of poor production,” said WFP’s Jan Delbaere, also a co-leader of the mission. “Having depleted their food stocks and sold livestock and other assets to cope with the effects of recent crises, many rural households are still struggling to survive.”
The significantly better cereal production comes in spite of the fact that inputs such as quality seeds and fertilizer were in short supply and expensive. However, production at household level did not reach its potential due to use of retained grain, including some food aid, as seed, and lack of fertilizers, fuel and draught power, which resulted in late planting and cultivation of smaller plots by subsistence farmers.
The report provisionally estimates that about 2.8 million people will face food shortages in the 2009/10 marketing year (April/March) and will require some 228,000 tonnes of food assistance, including 190,000 of cereals. The mission cautions, however, that these figures may need to be revised based on the findings of a proposed Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee assessment in August.
The report estimates total domestic cereal availability for 2009/10 at 1.39 million tonnes against a projected total utilization of 2.07 million tonnes, leaving an import requirement of 680,000 tonnes. To meet this gap, cereal imports of about 500,000 tonnes, mostly by the private sector, are expected, providing there are no import restrictions.
Given the uncertainty of imports in the new economic environment, the mission recommends that the national cereal balance sheet be reviewed and updated periodically.
The mission recommends emergency assistance by the Government and the international community in acquiring fertilizer and quality seed for delivery in September 2009, and dipping chemicals for the control of tick-borne livestock diseases.
Investing in sustainable food production in Zimbabwe will require re-establishment of its domestic seed industry, promotion of conservation agriculture, rehabilitation of irrigation facilities, and support to farm mechanization and agricultural extension, the report concluded.