Zimbabwe is bracing for another year of food insecurity, amid bleak expectations from both the main maize harvest in April and the coming winter wheat crop.
The hunger season peaked in March, when about 7 million people - more than half the population - relied on donated food. An assessment of the national crop by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) will be published in the first half of June.
"It [the harvest] is going to be poor, we just don't know how poor," WFP's southern Africa spokesman, Richard Lee, told IRIN. Feeding operations have been wound down, but about 600,000 vulnerable people would still receive assistance.
The joint assessment will determine food requirements for the once prosperous country in the coming year. FAO said in its Crop Prospects and Food Situation newsletter in April that farmers had had to cope with "a long dry spell", compounding the "shortages and high prices of key inputs such as fertiliser, seed, fuel, and tillage power [which] will result in another low cereal harvest this year."
The agriculture ministry has forecast a maize harvest of 1.2 million metric tonnes, 600,000mt below the national requirement. The 2008 maize harvest produced about 580,000mt.
"Nothing on the ground indicates that we are going to get as much [as 1.2mt]. Even the farming unions I have talked to tell me that we would be lucky to get 800,000mt," Renson Gasela, former agriculture secretary of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and a farming specialist, told IRIN.
Winter wheat a crop of the past
The 2000 fast-track land reform programme, which redistributed more than 4,000 white commercial farms to landless blacks, was a watershed for Zimbabwean food production. Lee said he did not expect the winter wheat crop to contribute much to food security, as "the irrigation systems are shot."
"Since the old government [President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF] embarked on the fast-track land redistribution programme, winter wheat farming has been deteriorating, and the trend is set to continue this year because the new farmers are again poorly prepared," Gasela said.
Although white commercial farmers tended to produce wheat and cash crops like tobacco because maize, the staple food, was subject to price controls, the collapse of commercial farming caused the disintegration of agricultural industries that supported maize production by small-scale farmers.
"For optimal winter wheat yields, planting should take place from the beginning to the middle of May every year, but my observation is that most of the farmers have not even started tilling the land - that means that the farmers who decide to go ahead will produce hardly anything," Gasela said.
|For optimal winter wheat yields, planting should take place from the beginning to the middle of May every year, but my observation is that most of the farmers have not even started tilling the land|
The dollarisation of the economy and the formation of a unity government on 11 February 2009 have filled empty shelves and brought stock to retail outlets, including wheat seed, but Gasela said most farmers could not afford it, and fertiliser supplies were both erratic and prohibitively priced.
A 50kg bag of fertiliser costs US$35 on average, while 25kg of wheat seed costs US$30. Gasela, who is also a farmer, said about 600kg of Compound D fertiliser, as well as top dressing fertiliser and 100kg of seed were required to prepare one hectare.
During a recent tour of Mashonaland Central Province, once a robust farming region, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said wheat planting for 2009 had fallen far below expectations. "This province has the capacity to plant 18,000 hectares of winter wheat but managed only 150 hectares, just enough for a single farmer."
Agriculture minister Joseph Made has announced the withdrawal of government support, such as subsidised inputs and free fuel, for winter wheat farmers. John Robertson, an economics consultant based in the capital, Harare, told IRIN that many farmers had opted out of winter wheat production.
"There is a lot of uncertainty among farmers because the cost of producing crops is way above the money they realise after selling their produce and, in some cases, it has taken more than a year for them to be paid by the Grain Marketing Board [the government grain parastatal]," he said.