Comment: Food Shortages Major Test for the GNU

ZIMBABWE is facing massive food shortages again this year with crops already wilting in many parts of the country due to a prolonged dry spell.

In such a scenario it is easy for news media to come up with headlines suggesting that millions of people are facing mass starvation. Not so fast.

There will be no mass deaths induced by famine but as food stocks are exhausted, hunger will set in and trigger a negative chain of events which will hurt this fledgling economy.

Aid agencies have warned food shortages could provoke mass migration. Hungry migrants including teachers and nurses from Zimbabwe could be forced to leave their homes, cross the Limpopo and make their way to South Africa’s already teeming cities. More national resources would have to be committed to food imports instead of production and social upheaval could set in due to unemployment.

The situation on the ground is dire. The rains have been poor throughout the country including the maize-producing belt spanning Mashonaland East, West and Central provinces.

The Met Office’s rainfall projections have been way off the mark. This is not the normal season that we were promised at the onset of the rainy season three months ago.

All projections of a better harvest this year compared to the 2008/2009 season have to be revised downwards. The government says one million hectares have been planted with maize this season, up from 900 000 hectares last season.

At a projected depressed productivity rate of two tonnes a hectare, the country was forecast to produce two million tonnes of maize, enough to feed the nation and fill the strategic reserve silos.

Finance minister Tendai Biti in presenting the Budget at the end of last year was bullish in his forecast of growth in agriculture; a 10% jump, spurred by better yields in maize, tobacco and small grains.

This anticipated higher production on the farms and was expected to anchor the overall economic growth of 15% this year. It will not happen. Any growth will be minuscule this year. A marginal 2% growth is now forecast in farming.

What might also not happen is mass starvation on the scale already being ventilated in the media if aid groups come in with bags of maize meal and nutritious porridge mix to feed the children.

Starvation can also be averted if donors honour their pledge to bridge a US$810 million gap in the budget. These are big ifs. Donors have committed their resources elsewhere.

Their hopes were heightened following the formation of the unity government between President Robert Mugabe and his former archrivals in February last year. There was sure evidence that the situation would improve.
In the spirit of this projected positive change, in November last year, the United Nations reduced by almost half its request for donations to assist Zimbabwe’s poor following positive changes in the economic situation.

Aid agencies now fear the cuts in funding will see more people going without food this year. The US-funded Famine Early Warning System Network in its latest forecast predicts that as a result of the poor rainfall and the severe shortage of agriculture inputs, 2,2 million Zimbabweans would need food aid. The government has no resources of its own to feed the vulnerable in our society.

While food assistance will target mainly rural folk, those in towns and cities will have to fend for themselves. They have to buy imported food as has largely been the case in the last 18 months.

This also has its problems. Most sectors of the economy are driven by agriculture. A poor run in this sector therefore means that other sectors would have to rely on imports for raw materials.

Analyses and projections by major financial institutions this week point to the fact that unless the political situation improves so as to allow an improvement in international financial support, the liquidity crunch that characterised 2009 is expected to continue.

As a result Biti would be forced to keep the zero import duty on basic commodities at a time when local manufacturers are clamouring for a levy on food imports.

Food shortages will hurt the economy even more. With feuding parties failing to solve outstanding issues, the credit crunch is likely to degenerate further as bank deposits dry out in the heat of hunger and hardships. The little money available will flow south across the border to import food.

At the end of the day, there will be very little left to provide as loans to the productive sector. Financial institutions which provided loans to farmers this season will be sitting on illiquid assets like houses and motor vehicles as farmers fail to pay back loans. We are keenly observing this drama as it unfolds in the financial services sector.

The solace though is that producers will not take advantage of food shortages by increasing prices of basic commodities due to the expected continued extension of the zero import duty on basic commodities scheme. This will ensure the continued availability of imported basic commodities but no new jobs to ease unemployment. This is a major test for the GNU.

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