Zimbabwe fast running out of food grain: aid group

HARARE – Zimbabwe could run out of basic food grains by early November as imports have been insufficient to make up for a disastrous harvest this year, a U.S. aid agency said on Thursday.

The country has had food shortages since 2001, a crisis blamed on President Robert Mugabe’s seizure of commercial farms from experienced white farmers in an effort to resettle landless blacks.

The United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) said in an alert sent to Reuters that food imports had to triple between now and March 2009 from the current rate of 8,786 tonnes a week. "Given the current pace of imports, Zimbabwe could face a critical shortage or exhaustion of cereals as early as the first week of November," FEWSNET said.

FEWSNET said a crop assessment carried out by the Zimbabwean government and food aid groups in April showed the country required grain imports of 1.164 million tonnes.

Zimbabwe’s food shortages worsened after the government in June banned non governmental organisations from distributing food, accusing them of campaigning for the opposition ahead of a June 27 presidential run-off.

The ban was lifted last month.

Mugabe’s government had said it planned to import 600,000 tonnes of maize from South Africa this year but only 175,000 tonnes had been bought by the end of August. "To meet the country’s estimated consumption needs for the remainder of the marketing year, excluding carryover, an estimated additional 788,719 tonnes of cereals are needed," FEWSNET said.

Zimbabwe, a former regional breadbasket, is in the grips of a severe economic crisis marked by the world’s highest inflation rate of more than 11 million percent. It faces another poor farming season due to a lack of agricultural inputs, especially seeds and fertiliser.

The government says it plans to plant 500,000 hectares with maize for the 2008/2009 season, down from 2 million ha it initially targeted last year.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says Zimbabwe produced about 800,000 tonnes of maize in 2007, a 44 percent decline from the yield in the previous year. The country needs about 2 million tonnes of the staple grain annually.

Mugabe, who denies his policies have destroyed agriculture and the economy, last week signed a power-sharing agreement with opposition rival Morgan Tsvangirai that will weaken his decades-old grip on power.

The deal has hit a snag with disagreements about the allocation of cabinet posts among the rival parties, which has delayed action on the economic crisis. Reuters