Humanitarian workers are concerned about the food security situation in Zimbabwe but told IRIN the extent of the problem hinges on the ability of the government to import enough grain to cover a production deficit.
The US-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) last week said 5.8 million Zimbabweans - almost half the population - were in need of food aid.
In its overview of food security threats in sub-Saharan Africa, FEWS NET noted that the situation in Zimbabwe is "deteriorating", and "staple food availability is declining as market prices continue to rise".
The minister of lands, agriculture and rural development, Joseph Made, has dismissed the FEWS NET report. He was quoted by the official newspaper, The Herald, as saying, "Those claims from the West are simply because we have embarked on an anti-Blair [British Prime Minister] campaign for our elections, and they can see the land is in our hands. This is a clear signal of how desperate they are."
Made said the state-owned Grain Marketing Board (GMB), which holds a monopoly on the purchase and distribution of cereals, was distributing 370,000 mt of grain. "That is besides the 400,000 mt sitting in our strategic reserve. Apart from that, we are moving some carryover stock into the country."
The government has maintained that Zimbabwe produced 2.4 million mt of maize last year, against a national requirement of about 1.8 million mt. However, a report by the parliamentary portfolio committee on lands and agriculture revealed that by October 2004, the GMB had received only 388,558 mt: the board told the committee that some farmers preferred to hold onto their grain stocks rather than sell to the GMB.
Independent estimates said the country produced only about one million mt of maize last year.
In May 2004 the government decided not to renew an appeal for international food aid and controversially cancelled a crop assessment mission by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Food Programme (WFP), claiming there would be a bumper harvest.
According to the South African Grain Information Services (SAGIS), more than 32,000 mt of maize was exported to Zimbabwe through South Africa between November 2004 and January this year.
A report on informal cross-border food trade, released by FEWS NET last week, indicated that since July 2004, Zimbabweans had also informally imported 8,290 mt from Zambia.
Aid workers in Zimbabwe told IRIN they suspected the figures reflected in the SAGIS import/export records were "too low" and did not fully reflect the amount of grain the government was bringing into the country.
They also stressed that the government's capacity to cover its import bill would determine the food security situation over what is traditionally the lean season, from December to March.
The humanitarian community faces a difficult working environment in Zimbabwe, and aid officials said it was difficult to gather a comprehensive assessment of household-level food availability in the countryside.
But, according to separate surveys released by both FEWS NET and WFP earlier this month, while staple cereals are increasingly unavailable in rural areas, maize prices on the parallel market continue to climb, limiting the ability of households to buy enough food to satisfy their needs.
"Zimbabweans have been facing food shortages since 2002 [when 7.2 million people through to March 2003 were in need of food aid] and their coping mechanisms are exhausted", an aid worker commented.
Chris McIvor of the development agency Save the Children, which operates in the impoverished northern Zambezi Valley said, "People's survival strategies have raised similar concerns, as they did in 2002, primarily because of the impact on children's lives. For example, their withdrawal from school; the time spent on labour activities rather than on education; the exposure to hazards occasioned by trying to find wild foods to supplement their family's diet.
"We continue to note a high incidence of chronic malnutrition [in the Zambezi Valley], which is indicative of a perennial food shortage in the area, which impacts on the growth of children. Acute malnutrition, which is an indicator of sudden food crisis, continues to remain relatively benign."
Other aid workers said the GMB was struggling to regularly supply all its depots in the countryside. Maize was available in some GMB outlets, but only for "a few days" at a time.
A Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee report in April 2004, endorsed by the government, projected that around 41 percent of the rural population (3.3 million people) would be food insecure from December 2004 to March 2005 if the price of maize reached Zim $750/kg. Maize is already selling at above Zim $1,100/kg in most rural areas, reaching Zim $2,000/kg in the worst hit districts, FEWS NET said in a report published in November.
The cost of living in urban areas increased steadily during 2004, and the majority of urban households struggle to meet their basic expenditure requirements, FEWS NET said.
The cost of food, as well as non-food items, rose by 92 percent from January to November 2004, but wages failed to keep up. According to the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, the minimum industrial wage of Zim $500,000 (about US $86.96) could cover only 31 percent of the November expenditure basket.
Zimbabwe could have another poor harvest this year after late seasonal rains, particularly in the midlands and southern provinces, and lack of inputs for farmers.
WFP spokesman Mike Huggins said although it was too early to make a definitive assessment, "Delayed rains, given the limited availability of fertilisers and seeds, and low tillage, these are some concerns about Zimbabwe's harvest prospects."