8th Mar, 2006: ZIMBABWE is once again set to have a serious grain deficit that will further exert pressure on its meagre foreign currency resources through more imports, at a time when millers are expected to begin processing yellow maize to ease the worsening food crisis.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service projects a staple maize yield within the 800 000 metric tonne to 900 000 metric tonne range, about half the country’s annual requirements despite above average rains received during the current season.
This raises the spectre of continued food imports, while confirming the costly effects of poor preparations for what has turned out to be one of the best seasons in recent years in terms of rainfall.
In a grim projection of another poor grain harvest this year, the USDA said a six-year-old foreign currency crisis that is currently wreaking havoc in the country had spawned agricultural input shortages and would result in another poor crop harvest.
In a report entitled Zimbabwe Grain and Feed Update, the USDA said only 1.3 million hectares had been put under summer crops, much lower than government projections of two million hectares.
A myriad of logistical constraints and the shortage of fuel to move inputs in time meant most farmers could not benefit from the full potential of the rainfall this season.
“The ailing Zimbabwean economy continues to experience persistent shortages of foreign currency resulting in shortages of critical raw materials such as seed, fuel, fertilisers and chemicals. As a result, the country was poorly prepared for the 2005/6 farming season.
“Timely production and importation of critical inputs has been a problem. Zimbabwean farmers may be unable to take advantage of the good rains in the 2005/2006 cropping season because of the serious shortage of inputs. The area under corn is estimated at 1.3 million hectares. Corn production is expected to be between 800 000 metric tonnes and 900 000 metric tonnes. Even with enough rains, Zimbabwe will not be self-sufficient in corn and will have to import more food after the May harvest,” reads part of the report released recently.
The Agricultural Research and Extension Services is yet to report its full assessment of the crop situation.
USDA said the major reason for the low maize plantings is the shortage of critical agricultural inputs such as fertilizer, seed and fuel. It said the country had about 26 000 MT of hybrid maize seed and about 5 000 MT of open-pollinated seed available against a national requirement of 51 000 MT. Although there were plans to bridge the gap through the import of 20 000 MT from neighboring countries, USDA said importation had not taken place by the end of October due to the shortage of foreign currency.
Zimbabwe, which is in its seventh straight year of economic recession marked by soaring inflation of 613.2 percent, an energy crisis, a hard currency crunch and pervasive social hardships has battled with a critical shortage of fertilizer and crop seeds during the past few seasons, a situation largely blamed on low inflows of foreign currency to import raw materials. Aid agencies say half of Zimbabwe’s population are living on the margins of death because of food shortages.
Although the government distributed inputs to an ambitious scheme dubbed “Operation Maguta”- a command agriculture model that is being implemented by the army, police and officers in the President’s office in which it planned to plant 200 000 hectares- USAD estimates the area to be only 12 000 hectares.
“The high inflation that has eroded the purchasing power of the majority of the Zimbabwean population also contributed to the low area planted. Inflation rose from 124 percent at the end of March 2005 to close the year at 585.8 percent in December 2005. Due to the high costs of production, farmers have had to revise their production targets downwards,” the report said. “Uptake and utilization of land on the formerly highly productive commercial farms is still quite low and is estimated to be 40 percent. Due to shortages of fertilizer and chemicals as well as high weeding requirements, yields may also be affected,” it added.
USDA also reported that wheat output is expected to decline to an estimated 95 000 MT against optimum annual domestic consumption of between 350 000 MT and 400 000 MT because of inadequate tillage, high production costs, late planting and a shortage of top-dressing fertilizer. Already the Grain Marketing Board (GMB), which has a national monopoly over the purchase, storage and sale of wheat and maize is rationing wheat to millers while a bread shortage is imminent.
Reports of the anticipated crop shortfalls come against the backdrop of reports by Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe that the country spent about US$135 million in the past year to import grain to feed starving people.
Economic experts say with maize imports at US$250 a tonne Harare will require another US$350 million for its net import needs.
As levels of food insecurity worsen, grain industry sources told The Financial Gazette this week that GMB will begin releasing the 3 000 tonnes of yellow maize donated by President Robert Mugabe’s communist allies China last month to ease food shortages. Traditionally yellow maize is used for animal consumption and up to now it was being used as stockfeed. But because stocks of white maize, the preferred staple food are fast dwindling Zimbabweans will have to put up with the yellow maize, which has traditionally been imported for human use in drought years.