AS the threat of food shortages continues to grow, the supply of maize, which has become a major political issue, continues to dwindle ahead of the general election in March.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai this week issued his starkest warning yet that maize shortages could cause widespread starvation.
“Hunger and starvation now loom for millions and agricultural sources said the country would run out of maize next month since it was now impossible to import sufficient to meet the monthly national requirement of 150 000 tonnes,” he said.
This came as a senior United Nations official voiced concern about the prospect of food shortages in Zimbabwe as a result of the decision by President Robert Mugabe’s regime to refuse further food aid.
James Morris, executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), this week challenged the Zimbabwe government’s claims of a bumper 2004 crop of maize. Following a harvest of less than one million tonnes last year such a turnaround would be “staggering” if true, he said.
“If the projections are not correct, a great number of people would be very much at risk,” Morris said. “I don’t know what the evidence is that things would be any better (than last year). The next 90 days are going to be critical.”
However, the government maintained this week that there are sufficient maize stocks, although doubts persist.
While government insists there is enough food, supermarket shelves are virtually empty of supplies of mealie-meal, the staple diet.
Farming sources reported last week that only 40 000 tonnes of maize were left. The Catholic Church and the United Nations Development Programme say that 500 000 Zimbabweans are already in urgent need of relief in the western Matabeleland and central Midlands areas. As usual, government officials and the state-controlled media accuse commercial farmers of hoarding maize. They have also apportioned blame to milling companies and erratic rainfall.
The statistics tell a different story: production has slumped drastically because of invasions of white-owned farms by government supporters. In the 2000 season, commercial farmers planted 150 000 hectares to maize, in 2001 69 000, and currently only 45 000 is planted with an expected yield of 200 000 tonnes.
Agriculture Minister Joseph Made, who until recently repeatedly denied there would be any shortfall in food production, now says that 98 000 tonnes of maize have been requested from the World Food Programme.
Made, who has consistently misled the nation on grains stocks, still claims that next month there will be a bumper harvest of three million tonnes of maize from newly resettled farmers.
But this claim is contradicted by government’s appeals for US$60 million in donor assistance to cover food, among other things. The United States responded with an initial 8 000 tonnes of maize shipment.Tsvangirai said substitute foods for Zimbabwe’s 12,5 million people were at least twice as expensive and in short supply, partly as a result of the farm invasions, and maize was irreplaceable as stock feed.
He appealed to voluntary organisations and foreign governments to make ready for a relief operation, if need be after “the induction of a new MDC government in March”.