JOHANNESBURG, 10 August 2010 (IRIN) - Zimbabwe's production of maize, its staple food, has improved "significantly", but the country is still food insecure and about 1.68 million people will require assistance in the first quarter of 2011, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) said in a national crop and food security situation report released on 9 August.
"Compared with the poor 2008 season, when less than 500,000 metric tons of maize was harvested, production more than doubled in 2009 and 2010 to 1.27 and 1.35 million tons respectively," FAO/WFP said in a statement. In the first quarter of 2009 about 7 million people - more than half the population - depended on food assistance.
"Zimbabwe has only 1.66 million tons of cereals available, as against a total needs forecast of 2.09 million tons in marketing year 2010/11 (April/March). That leaves a 428,000 ton shortfall," Liliana Balbi, the team leader of the FAO Global Information and Early Warning System, said in a statement.
The increased maize production was also attributed to a subsidized government credit system for commercial farmers, as well as an agricultural input assistance programme by the government, UN agencies and other humanitarian organizations, which distributed nearly 140,000 tons of fertilizer and top dressing, and 22,373 tons of maize seed, to more than 700,000 households.
WFP spokesman Peter Smerdon said a greater number of people than the estimated 1.68 million could require food assistance during the "lean season" - the three months preceding the April 2011 harvest - depending on variables such as food price rises.
"Despite the improved availability of food, up to 1.68 million people will need food assistance because prices remain comparatively high for families with low incomes and little or no access to US dollars or South African rand," WFP's Jan Delbaere, co-author of the report, said in a statement.
The Zimbabwean dollar was discontinued in 2009 as a solution to hyperinflation, and replaced by "hard currencies", such as the US dollar, South African rand and Botswana pula, but unemployment levels are extremely high and many people do not have access to these currencies.
Smerdon said an appeal to donors for food assistance would be launched soon, and would be separate from the Consolidated Appeals ProcessCAP), the humanitarian community's most important fundraising instrument.
On 3 August the CAP for Zimbabwe was revised upward by US$100 million to US$478 million as result of the dry spell that afflicted parts of the country between December 2009 and February 2010. As of 4 August, commitments to Zimbabwe's 2010 CAP amounted to less than 42 percent of the requested amount.
Long-term decline in maize production
The 1.8 million hectares planted to maize was a 30-year "historical high", the report said, representing a 20 percent increase from the previous year, but Smerdon told IRIN the concern was that the greater amount of land under cultivation was not mirrored in production levels, which had only increased seven percent from the previous year. "The average [hectare] yield of maize has declined for the past 15 years," he commented.
The FAO/WFP report noted that "Nationally, maize yields decreased to 0.75 tons/ha, from 0.82 tons/ha recorded the last season. Yields decreased in all farming sectors, with the exception of ... commercial farms, which recorded an average increase of 6 percent over the previous season. Nationally, yields are just below the 10-year average (2000-2010) of 0.87 tons/ha. Similarly, millet and sorghum yields fell."
According to the report, the 15-year downward trend in maize production was attributed to the introduction of price controls, which prompted commercial farmers to grow non-price controlled crops such as tobacco, cotton and paprika.
The "more recent decline is due to the structural change precipitated by land tenure policies, lack of investment funds domestically and externally in agriculture sector, and overriding economic deterioration."
Some analysts also attribute the long-term decline in maize production to more frequent droughts, "combined with maize production being on more marginal lands of the communal farms, with little or no fertilizer," the report said.
President Robert Mugabe launched the fast-track land reform programme in 2000, which redistributed more than 4,000 white commercial farms to landless blacks, which set in motion a decade-long economic malaise from which the country has yet to emerge.