February 1, 2010 / 10:50 AM / 10 years ago

Zimbabwe's farmers warn of huge grain deficit

HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe may have to import over half the maize it needs this year to cover a deficit after drought has destroyed crops and left the country facing a severe food shortage, a farmers’ group said on Monday.

A file photo shows white corn ready for sale at a distribution center in Guatemala City. REUTERS/Daniel LeClair

The former regional bread basket has relied on food aid and imports since 2001, after President Robert Mugabe’s government seized commercial farms from whites to resettle landless blacks, most of whom were poorly equipped and underfunded.

Zimbabwe’s unity government, set up by Mugabe and his rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, had projected a return to food self-sufficiency this year with maize output of 2.5 million tonnes, double last year’s yield.

But both black and white farmers’ unions have forecast production of maize, a staple in the nation’s diet, will be nowhere near this figure.

“All indications are that this season will be a total disaster. We will be very lucky if we get more than 500,000 tonnes,” Deon Theron, president of the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), which represents the 500 remaining white farmers, told Reuters.

“We need about 1.8 million tonnes of maize, so over a million tonnes will have to be made up by imports.”

The government has also indicated the current season would be poor, but has not revised its output target, saying it will soon carry out a nationwide crop assessment.

Theron said apart from the drought, which affected much of the late planted crop, poor preparations and continued disturbances on white farms had also contributed to another poor season.

“We predicted the dry conditions affecting the crop now and advised farmers to plant early, but a lot of our farmers who were going to put seed in the ground early were being harassed,” Theron said.

“Producing adequate food for ourselves is going to be a problem as long as we don’t find a way forward and resolve the disputes on the farms for the benefit of the country.”

The Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers’ Union (ZCFU), which represents most of the newly resettled black farmers, also gave a grim assessment of the current agricultural season.

“We are likely to have a food deficit and we are now appealing to the government and other stakeholders to start preparing to deal with the food deficit,” ZCFU president William Nyabonda told state media.

“It is time for the government to start crafting a budget to source additional grain from neighbouring countries.”

Zimbabwe’s unity government, which says it needs at least $10 billion to reconstruct the battered economy, is battling to raise funds and grain imports will exert added pressure on its limited resources.

Western donors, seen as key to Zimbabwe’s economic recovery, are holding back on funding the government, and have insisted on signs that Mugabe is willing to genuinely share power with the former opposition and institute broad reforms.

Critics blame Mugabe’s land seizures for the country’s political and economic crisis.

But Mugabe, 85, and in power since independence from Britain in 1980, says the country’s problems have been mainly due to intermittent droughts, Western sanctions and sabotage by those opposed to his land redistribution programme.

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