HARARE – Food is a commodity in the last instance, wrote Dan Morgan in his book, Merchants of Grain.
Morgan, a former editor with the Washington Post, said poor people in Africa (and other parts of the world) starve “not because there is not enough food in the world, but because they are beyond the reach of the vast commercial system that produces food and distributes it from one country to another.”
“Hungry people,” says Morgan, “do not have much effect on the futures prices, the Rotterdam spot market, or the European agricultural import duties.”
In other words, food does not become cheaper because people are starving. A king, a beggar and a starving person must buy food at the same price.
Because the flow of food is influenced by demand, it bypasses Africa for Europe, Asia, Russia and `Japan where it is traded.
China, is now the world’s largest importer of soya beans with the new middle class leading the change in food consumption habits, in particular, a growing appetite for meat.
The dietary shift is straining China’s agricultural sector, which is already trying to feed one-fifth of the world’s population with scarce farmland and water.
These constraints are increasing China’s reliance on the international markets for its food resources, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation.
The shift towards a greater reliance on food imports has profound implications for global food markets because China’s total demand for grains is vast relative to the size of globally traded markets.
Agricultural economists say the 2008 and 2011 food riots in Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Senegal, Mauritania and Mozambique, Egypt, and Indonesia, marked the end era of cheap food.
Leon Wassilly, a nobel prize-winning economist, has said world hunger could be eliminated with a five percent increase in centres that mostly need food.
Some 30 years ago, China and India could not feed themselves. Today, they feed themselves and export food. Why not Africa?
The process of moving grain from seed to plant to harvest is wrought with dangers.
It is determined by the vagaries of weather.
And the weather pendulum seems to be swinging from one end to the other — from severe floods to severe droughts.
In some countries rains come too early, in other too late or not at all. This has affected harvests.
Food production in Zimbabwe has been devastated by a combination of economic and political instability, and droughts.
Zimbabwe, formerly an exporter of food in the region, has been importing food since a violent land grab disrupted production at the turn of the century.
This year the country has made arrangements to import 150 000 tonnes of maize from neighbouring Zambia, to cover a grain shortfall. Zambia used to import maize from Zimbabwe.
Some meteorologists think global warming plays a role in changing weather patterns, others think droughts are caused by sun spots and follow a two to seven-year cycle.
Yet others say rainfall patterns in the Sahel have been declining over the past 200 years.
Aided by drought conditions, overgrazing of stock, destruction of forests and poor land husbandry the Sahara desert is said to be marching south at at the rate of 12 km a year.
Firewood supplies 52 percent of Africa’s energy requirements, compared with 16 present for South America.
Latest figures show Zimbabwe is losing forests at the rate of 300 000 hectares a year.
Tobacco growers are now adding to the deforestation rate as they use wood for curing tobacco.
With only over 30 percent of Zimbabweans having access to electricity, the bulk of Zimbabweans still use firewood for fuel.
Africa’s population is growing at an average 3 percent per annum the biggest growth in the world.
At the same time, absolute food production has been declining at the rate of one percent per annum over the past decade.
Governments have given low priority to agriculture in the 50 years of independence, spending an average $2 per capita on agriculture.
In addition, pricing policies have tended to favor urban elites who have political power against the rural poor.
There has also been insufficient support for impoverished rural farmers in terms of credit, marketing and extension services.
Katekwe maestro Oliver Mtukudzi said as much in his 2002 song Murimi Munhu from the album Bvuma Tolerance.
Mtukudzi recognises the importance of the farmer who keeps everyone fed from the politician to the thief.
Given appropriate technology and policies, many African countries could feed themselves. But the technology that is available is being used to grow mostly cash crops that earns scarce foreign exchange.
Because of mechanisation of agriculture in the developed world, one person can work an average 93 hectares, while in Africa, the average is 1,61 hectares per person.
A small percentage of arable land is under irrigation. Crop yields under irrigation have been shown to increase greatly as compared to yields from dry land. Of the continent’s 184m arable acres only 8,7 are irrigated.
In contrast there are 23,3 million irrigated hectares in North and Central America’s 273,3m arable hectares and 34,8 m hectares in Asia’s 456,8m arable hectares.
Of the total irrigated area in Zimbabwe it was estimated in 1999 that 112 783ha was under sprinkler irrigation (including centre pivots), 46 849 ha under surface irrigation and 13 881 ha under localised irrigation.
But these figures have since reduced following resettlement of new farmers. With little or no improvement in rural areas people are heading for urban centres.
In 1980, 25 percent of Africa’s population was urban. In 1990 the percentage had risen to 32 percent and by 2000 that figure had risen to 39 percent.
Forty percent of Zimbabweans now live in urban centres according 2011 figures. But some say the percentage is even higher.
They say Zanu PF’s urban clean-up was an indication there are now more urbanites that rural folk.
The UN says poverty is now growing faster in urban centres than in rural areas.
One billion people live in urban slums, which are typically overcrowded, polluted and dangerous, and lack basic services such as clean water and sanitation.
Although urbanisation is said to increasingly concentrate poverty, it also provides possibilities for escaping it.
For the most part, rich countries are already urbanised, and most of the expected urban growth will occur in less-developed regions, which have fewer resources for coping with the scale of the change.
Africa’s conflicts have also worsened food shortages by displacing rural farmers and creating a large number of refugees who then depend on western handouts.
Food aid and imports have also changed the food habits of the burgeoning urban dwellers with food shortages accelerating wheat imports.
To make matters worse , the sharp increases in oil prices have pushed up prices of fertilizers and farm imports, affecting production in many African countries, including Zimbabwe.
But as long as Zimbabwe and African countries do not grow enough food for their people, they’ll spend scarce foreign exchange on buying food and relying on humanitarian food from the west.
For Zimbabwe talk about sovereignty becomes empty rhetoric when the country is being fed by its so-called enemies.