Food has been so politicised in Zimbabwe that it is difficult to get an accurate picture of the situation on the ground.
The government, which says this year’s maize harvest is about 2.4 million tonnes, is overstating the harvest to score political points and give the impression that the land reform has been a success.
The opposition and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which argue that the country has a deficit of close to 1.3 million tonnes, are understating the harvest to prove that the land reform programme has been a disaster and to push their claim that the government intends to use food to buy votes in next year’s elections.
Professor Sam Moyo, a renowned expert on land in the country who has carried out several studies on behalf of the United Nations, says he is dismayed at the terrible way the debate on food in the country has been politicised.
“All the actors, including the IMF (International Monetary Fund) are politicising the food issue. No one is looking at the needs of the moment. It’s all smoke and mirrors,” Moyo said.
Moyo, who is now the executive director of the African Institute for Agrarian Studies in Harare, said in the worst case scenario, if there is any shortfall at all, it cannot be more than 300 000 tonnes, which is nothing near the 1.3 million tonnes the opposition and non-governmental organisations are talking about.
He says, at the same time, there is no way the harvest could have reached 2.4 million tonnes as the government claims largely because of the current climate which has seen the economy shrink by 30 percent over the last five years. Farmers have therefore not been able to procure adequate inputs.
Moyo argues that if the maize requirements for the country are 1.8 million tonnes and the harvest is estimated at 1.1 million tonnes. This leaves a deficit of 700 000 tonnes. If the government is going to import 545 000 tonnes as the IMF admits, the deficit comes down to 155 000 tonnes.
The IMF projections are based on a preliminary estimate by the World Food Programme(WFP) on February 29. Though the WFP carried out another survey in April, it did not complete it after the government barred NGOs from carrying out food surveys.
But even then, the WFP went on to project that the country would have a harvest of 950 000 tonnes of cereals. It estimated national demand at 2. 4 million tonnes leaving a deficit of 1.3 million tonnes.
The WFP, which only visited Mashonaland West, Manicaland and Matabeleland North, said 30 to 40 percent of the farmers in these areas had indicated that they would run out of food by June or July.
The current debate on the food situation seems to have been sparked by reports from Bulawayo that more than 160 people have died in the city this year because of malnutrition, which some media reports attributed to food shortages.
While admitting that food production could have dropped because of the shrinking economy and lack of access to inputs, Moyo said the land reform per se had very little impact on the food availability, especially the staple maize, because communal farmers produced 70 percent of the maize before the reform programme.
“Commercial farmers only accounted for 30 percent of maize production and at most they delivered half of that crop to the Grain Marketing Board(GMB) retaining the other half for stockfeed and for their workers,” Moyo said.
GMB operations director Samuel Muvuti said last week 300 000 tonnes had already been delivered to the country’s granary with an additional 20 000 to 30 000 tonnes coming in every week.
Moyo said it was probably misleading to judge the food situation by deliveries to the GMB because though communal farmers produced the bulk of the maize, they only sold 35 percent at most, retaining up to 65 percent for their own use.
“This year they could even be retaining more because they have just been through a drought,” he said.
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, in its report released two weeks ago, says while the national food security situation remains uncertain, basic commodities like maize, cooking oil, flour and sugar are now readily available in urban areas but limited household incomes continuously threaten food security.
It says while a low urban income family required $1.3 million for its basic needs in July, the minimum wage for industrial workers during the same month was about $444 000 a month which meant that it could only cover a third of the family’s basic requirements.
The basket has since gone up to $1.5 million a month.