Should We Grow Food Crops For Vehicles Or For People?

BACK in early 1994, having come out of the devastating drought of 1991/92 as chief executive of the Grain Marketing Board (GMB), I was approached by Clive Nicolle, representing the Lions Den Syndicate.


This was a group of commercial farmers stretching from Banket through Chinhoyi to Lions Den. He had a bio-fuel project, whose raw materials were going to be maize and soya beans. These farmers wanted my and GMB’s support for this project that was going to provide fuel and save this country large amounts of foreign currency. Large swathes of land were going to be put under maize and soya production for bio-fuels.

After a careful study of the effects of the project, considering that Mashonaland West was the main producer of food, considering further that there was no offer or plans for expansion in order to maintain the land taken for growing crops for bio-fuels, I told the farmers that we could not support their project. Failure to get our support as GMB then killed the project.

It is common knowledge now how the world has gone into bio-fuels in a very large way. Millions of tonnes of food grains and oilseeds are going into bio-fuel production. These are fuels of the future since, unlike crude oil, they are renewable energy sources. Again unlike crude oil, many countries in the world could be able to produce large quantities of fuel for their own use.

In the United States, it is reported that about 30% of agricultural land is now producing crops for bio-fuels. Nearer home, it is reported that the government in South Africa plans to provide incentives for those producing sugar, soya and beetroot for bio-fuels.

With this they plan that in five years, bio-fuels should make up at least 2% of every litre of petrol or diesel sold. This means that a large portion of land will be put under those crops; possibly depriving food crops land.

While bio-fuels have many advantages, it is not the intention of my article to interrogate their positive contributions to countries but rather the adverse consequences to the world in general and to Zimbabwe in particular.

This good product has resulted in much land being put into fuel production at the expense of producing the same crops for food. The stocks of food crops in the world have been depleted.

Current production levels cannot feed the world. The price of crude oil has been rising. Since crude oil is now competing with bio-fuels, its rise in prices has resulted in the doubling of prices of rice, maize, wheat, soyas.

We have seen food riots all over the world caused by food shortages and rising prices.

For Zimbabwe, our traditional import supplier of grain is South Africa. I have already mentioned its programme of bio-fuels. Where does this leave us?

In this country, we have the Ministry of Science and Technology which has, as one of its main functions, the promotion of bio-fuel production.

In this regard, we have seen how much they have gone out to promote jatropha. We know how much the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe is supportive of this to the extent of building and commissioning a state of the art bio-fuels processing plant.

This plant is ready to produce fuel for the country but I believe it is not operational due to among other things, shortage of raw materials. The raw materials required are jatropha, maize and soyas.

We are told that jatropha grows well and in the wild in Mutoko. Obviously, the quantities from Mutoko pale into insignificance in terms of the processing plant capacity. Towards that end government has been promoting jatropha production all over the country.

I know a number of commercial farmers who have moved into this crop. I will also join them soon. Did the government carry out a study of the effects to food for humans against food production for vehicles? Will the plant constructed have sufficient raw materials without adversely affecting food production?

Zimbabwe requires five million litres of diesel and three million litres of petrol daily. If we put 500 000 ha of land under jatropha; and assuming a high yield of four tonnes per ha, we would harvest 2 000 000 tonnes of jatropha. A tonne of jatropha produces 300 litres of diesel. Our 2 000 000 tonnes production per year would produce 600 000 litres of diesel per year or 12% of one day’s requirement.

What would the effect of putting 500 000 ha under this crop as against food crops? Will we not then have to use maize and soyas to keep the plant running and in order to produce meaningful quantities of diesel? Can we do that and at the same time produce enough food for humans?

Since 2000, this country has failed to produce enough food. It is common cause that over 70% of maize produced before 2000 came from communal and old resettlement farmers. What has now happened to these farmers that they are now failing to produce maize?

This year, 2008, the maize produced will be about 600 000 tonnes, leaving the country with a deficit of 1 400 000 tonnes. If the ever generous donors provide 400 000 tonnes as food aid, that will leave a shortfall of 1 000 000 tonnes to be imported commercially by government.

The crude oil/bio-fuels have pushed world prices of maize to US$400 per tonne delivered Harare and that of wheat to US$700 per tonne delivered Harare.

Where will this country get foreign currency from to import 1 000 000 tonnes of maize and 300 000 tonnes of wheat?

Since bio-fuels are a renewable source of energy and since they are now here to stay, what is required is to create a balance between growing food for humans and growing food for vehicles. Whoever thought that a time were come when our stomachs would be competing with vehicle stomachs for the same food?

I therefore suggest the following to be considered:

*That the communal farmers be assisted as a matter of urgency to produce maize as they used to before 2000.

*That all agricultural land be put to productive use and that those not using land be removed and other farmers be given that land.

*That all appropriate inputs be available before the end of July 2008.

*That all those farmers, especially commercial farmers, who are going into bio-fuel crop production have a quota of food grains that they must produce annually.

*That the trading of grains be completely decontrolled, leaving GMB with the residual buyer function and control of imports and exports of food grains.

*That inputs; fertilisers, seeds and chemicals be sold from and by many players, ie shops, stores, supermarkets. This will make these inputs available to all farmers.

These recommendations can and will only be implemented by an MDC government as it is not in the self-perpetuation interest of Zanu PF to correct the self-inflicted food crisis in this country, hence they will laugh at and dismiss this article, that is if they read it.

*Renson Gasela is a former general manager of the GMB and an MDC official.