The UNDP Human Development Report 1999 for Zimbabwe has attributed the problem of reduced food security in the country to large-scale commercial farms concentrating on horticulture, game ranching and tobacco, as well as to ‘liberalisation’, and the withdrawal of state support to indigenous farmers on communal land.

By Someshwar Singh

May 2000

Geneva: Large-scale commercial farmers, concentrating on horticulture, game ranching and tobacco, as well as ‘liberalisation’ and withdrawal of state support to indigenous farmers on communal land, have all combined to reduce food security, according to the UNDP Human Development Report 1999 for Zimbabwe.

The report, released in Harare in early April, suggests these and other, more systemic causes are responsible for the problems of food security, including a fall in maize production, the staple food in the country.

Meanwhile, an FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) report released in New York has warned that the ongoing dispute over land reforms and occupation of large commercial farms could have an adverse impact on food production.

The UNDP report (along with an earlier one on land reforms) shows that lands targeted to be taken over or acquired are those that are part of huge estates, not even worked on to grow anything. They are owned by mainly white farmers, a powerful section of large-scale commercial farmers (LSCF), which dominates the country’s economy and has attracted powerful supporters in the Western world and media.

But these farms do not produce the staple food for Zimbabweans.

During the colonial era, all land was declared public land and thus property of the state, and combined with ‘eminent domain’, a crown prerogative (state power) to acquire land for public use. And during the colonial period, most of the prime land was seized and taken over by white farmers, and the natives pushed on to marginal communal land.

At Independence, of the total landmass of 39 million hectares, 32 million was used for agriculture. Of this, 16 million hectares of prime land was under commercial farms, mostly individual white farmers, while 16.4 million hectares were for farming on communal land.

Major land reforms were foreclosed under the Lancaster agreement that brought Independence to Zimbabwe, and the state was precluded from taking over any land except on a ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ basis.

And before the current crisis erupted, the Zimbabwe government tried to persuade the large commercial farmers, many of whom own multiple large farms, to retain one and give up the others, and take compensation for the improvement made on the land, but not the land value itself (that was expropriated from natives during the colonial period and allotted to white settlers).

The LSCF, a good number of whom are said to be absentee landlords, are today mainly involved in horticulture, game ranching, and tobacco. It is the indigenous peasant population, which was herded into ‘reserves’ by the British colonial authority, and the newly settled other peasants, who together account for the bulk of the food produced.

According to the Human Development Report 1999 for Zimbabwe, in the first decade of the 1980s, the immediate post-independence period, so long as the government was in the driving seat it could ensure food security. But once it started shedding the reins of control in favour of the market and embracing liberalisation (since the 1990s), the country has entered a phase of food insecurity.

The Human Development Report has been produced by the University of Zimbabwe’s Institute of Development Studies (IDS) on behalf of the UNDP and the Poverty Reduction Forum - a policy advocacy grouping involving civil society, NGOs, policy-makers, academics and donors.

According to this report, food security in Zimbabwe is built around the questions of production, pricing, marketing and consumption of maize and other food crops. It is not just a commercial activity but means subsistence production for the bulk of the rural population.

The free trade argument that Zimbabwe should secure food from the international market if it is the cheaper source and turn to exportable products such as ostriches and cut flowers ‘is a dangerous argument’, says the report. ‘It not only endangers national food security but also threatens to put out of land millions of people for whom food production is both a source of immediate food as well as a source of income.’

In the colonial and Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) period, the government subsidised commercial food production to ensure cheap maize for industrial and urban workers, while people in the communal areas were left largely to fend for themselves.

In the immediate post-independence period, the government provided infrastructural facilities, inputs and credits to encourage communal areas to produce maize for the market.

The communal farmers responded enthusiastically in what became a success story in food production in Africa. One of the reasons for the success was that the State set the floor prices and provided a guaranteed channel, the Agricultural Marketing Authority, for the marketing of most agricultural produce except tobacco.

In the 1990s, the government began to relax its controls on the agricultural sector, and to apply market principles to food production and marketing. The Government Economic Recovery Programme contained extensive discussion on food, agriculture and rural-urban balance. It recommended the use of price signals and increased private market activities to promote agricultural growth, incentives to private farmers to produce cash crops for export, relaxation of restrictions on maize sales, and rationalisation of the Grain Marketing Board (GMB).

Two policy statements that were published in the 1990s elaborated on the centrality of the market mechanism for the pricing and marketing of agricultural produce.

In the 1980s, says the report, there had been a phenomenal growth of extension services and credit to communal areas. These were drastically curtailed during the 1990s.

The 1990s also saw a substantial reduction in the subsidies on farm inputs. The centralised crop purchasing system of the early 1980s was gradually abandoned, and the farmers were left to locate their own markets.

Because of the communal farmers’ immediate need for cash, they thus became hostage to middlemen, and were forced to sell at market-dictated low prices which, in turn, reduced their incomes and purchasing power.

On the other hand, the absence of an incentive price policy for certain crops explains the fact that commercial farmers gradually shifted away from maize production for domestic consumption to export crops, especially horticulture. From a largely self-sufficient food-producing country, Zimbabwe now entered an uncertain period in terms of food security.

Over the decade, the government has also reduced its role as a grain reserve holder, and thus its options in reducing food security. This shift is reflected in a fall in strategic grain reserves, declining from an average of 26% of total production in the 1980s to that of 20% in the 1990s.

Zimbabwe’s maize requirements amount to about 2.5 million metric tonnes (MT) per year. In recent years, however, maize production has declined, from 2.6 million MT in 1996 to an estimated 1.5 million MT in 1999, resulting in maize imports. Under a new arrangement reached in 1996, it was agreed that farmers, the GMB and other players would negotiate a producer price.

However, following the massive depreciation of the Zimbabwean dollar during the second half of 1997, this was abandoned. The depreciation of the Zimbabwean dollar raised the input costs to a point where they undermined the viability of producers.

The country has thus become hostage not only to the vagaries of the market but also to foreign exchange fluctuations.

The strategic grain reserves are at their lowest since Independence. Following the food riots of January 1998, the government had to introduce price controls on maize meals.

This experience illustrates the dangers of a food system that is dependent on imports for inputs and final products; shocks elsewhere in the economy can severely disrupt food supplies through exchange rate effects. This is a hallmark of food insecurity.

Using statistics up to 1999, the report shows that horticultural production has shot up phenomenally, while maize production has declined. In a liberalised world, the market rules, and the market is not sensitive to the demands of food security. It only responds to the opportunities for profit.

The decline in food production affected other grains besides maize. While maize declined at a rate of about 2%, sorghum declined at 3.3%, groundnut at 6.1% and soybeans at 4.8%. These declines are mainly because of falls in crop yields per hectare among the communal farmers.

Following the removal of the subsidies on fertiliser and other agro-chemicals, their prices shot up by over 300% in five years. As a result, fertiliser use by small farmers declined, as a share of national fertiliser consumption, from 24% to 22% between pre-globalisation and globalisation periods.

In order to maintain their income levels, farmers are forced to extend their agricultural areas. The area of land under maize has not fallen, it has actually increased, but the yields have fallen and maize consumption per person has fallen drastically.

One positive effect of liberalisation, however, has been the emergence of hammer mills in rural and urban areas, the report notes. These have not only broken the hold of large grain millers but also brought more nutritious brands of grains closer to the people. On the other hand, the big monopoly millers and oil-extracting companies using their financial muscle have run the middle and small-scale millers and oil-extracting companies aground.

Also, since the big millers now depend on imported grains because of inadequate local supplies, they are vulnerable to global market forces and changes in the exchange rate. They face serious problems of survival. The increase in their input costs was a major factor in the increase in the price of maize meal following the devaluation of the Zimbabwean dollar in November 1997.

Another effect of the liberalisation of the market and deregulation is that food moves from surplus areas to urban areas where profits are to be made instead of to food-poor rural areas where the need is the greatest. In the absence of adequate strategic grain reserves to provide food in food-deficit areas, this flow has exacerbated food insecurity in the rural areas. The suspension of the Grain Loan Scheme in 1999 signals the state’s growing inability to meet these food security commitments, as it at the same time accommodates price and market reforms simultaneously.

The establishment of a National Nutrition Task Force in the late 1990s has enabled intersectoral dialogue on resolving such issues, which have both national and international dimensions.

It is estimated that there are 1.2 million people residing in moderately and highly food-insecure communal areas, with 40 out of 174 communal areas classified as insecure, and 20 as highly-insecure.

In general, the average cereal production for the 1990s (two million metric tonnes) is less than that for the 1980s, affected not only by drought but also by costs and availability of fertiliser and pest control.

As the country imports grains to meet consumption requirements, the devaluation of the Zimbabwean dollar makes these imports expensive and puts pressure on the already unsustainable budget deficits.

Despite the moderate protection afforded by maize liberalisation, cost increases of food prices in urban areas have also affected maize staples, particularly hurting the poor urban consumers. Expenditure on food has fallen for all groups in the economy, although by 5% for the top-income quartile and 23% for the bottom 25%. Households in the urban areas are consuming less or cheaper cuts of meat, less chicken, fruit and eggs.

In January 1997, the country saw some of its worst food riots triggered by the devaluation of the Zimbabwean dollar, and the increase in the mealie meal prices by the millers by 45%.

Zimbabwe has moved from a cheap-food low-wage economy during the UDI period to an ‘expensive-food low-wage’ economy, the report notes. - Third World Network Features


The above article first appeared in SUNS  (Issue No. 4660).