Zimbabwe’s food security in crisis—but not for reasons you might think

A response to the latest United Nations report on Zimbabwe’s food emergency.

Melford Farm and elderly persons home in Harare, Zimbabwe. Image credit Kate Holt via IRIN Flickr CC.

In late November, the UN reported that Zimbabwe was “on the brink of man-made starvation.” Some 5.5 million people in the country currently do not have enough to eat.

There is no doubt that there is currently a shocking food security crisis in Zimbabwe, but this is not something that has suddenly occurred “out of the blue.” It has deep historical, political, economic and ecological roots. A recent report from Hilal Elver, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, explores the reasons for the crisis but some of the conclusions are ambiguous.

The UN report implies that the lack of commercial maize production and land redistribution are the major causes of the current food insecurity crisis. This assertion is politically loaded and is already being used on social media by vested interest groups to argue that land reform should be reversed. The report also fails to mention the efforts by Zimbabwe’s Food and Nutrition Council, the Ministry of Health and Child Care and civil society in supporting rural communities and reducing chronic malnutrition in the country during the past couple of decades. Below are some of the key factors leading to the current emergency.

The history behind the crisis

Zimbabwe has become extremely vulnerable to food insecurity largely as a result of almost a century of policies (pre- and post-independence) that have failed to support sustainable food production by smallholder farmers or develop local markets for nutritious food.

The current food crisis came to a head after an extremely severe drought from 2018 through 2019, occurring after a decade of successive droughts. This, on top of a deeply eroded system of food production stemming from policies that primarily support commercial cash crop agriculture.

Researchers have shown that from the 1920s until independence in 1980, the Rhodesian government deliberately sought to destroy smallholder subsistence agriculture to push peasants into the workforce and clear the most productive land in the country for white commercial farmers intent on cash cropping and cattle ranching. In his 1998 study Land Degradation in Zimbabwe: a Geographical Study, Richard Whitlow noted:

… the history of soil conservation and land degradation in the peasant farming areas is associated very closely with land alienation policies during the colonial period (1890–1980). A persistent theme in this history is the gradual deterioration of man-land relationships as population pressures, both human and livestock, increased.

Whitlow goes on to explain that the Rhodesian government saw black farmers as competition and sought to pressurize them to leave their land and become laborers. He cited important factors contributing to widespread land degradation in the communal areas, including “the widespread adoption of maize growing and the use of ploughs.” By the late 1920s, maize had become a staple and cash crop and maize-growing areas were extended “partly to supply an expanding market in the towns and mines and partly to counter the lower, less reliable yields of maize” when compared with small grains.

Pre-independence land tenure and natural resource management policies destroyed the existing production systems of diverse traditional crops and livestock and displaced most of the population into “tribal trust lands.” The soils and climate in these areas were not conducive to agriculture and population densities became too high for these farmers to obtain sufficient land to make a living and grow food.

Then in the 1940s and 1950s, an American missionary employed by the Rhodesian government as the “Agriculturalist for the Instruction of Natives,” led a team that forced communities to abandon their traditional land-use patterns and to cultivate centralized fields that were separated from grazing areas. These tribal trust lands are now known as the communal farming areas—where some of the worst food insecurity exists due to severe land degradation, the drought-prone climate and a serious lack of investment.

The UN Special Rapporteur’s report mentions poor agricultural productivity as a major contributing factor to the current food security crisis; however, there is no direct correlation between agricultural productivity and food security when the focus of productivity is on cash crops rather than nutritious food production. In Zimbabwe, as in many countries, the worst chronic malnutrition (stunting) rates are consistently found in the areas where agricultural (and maize) productivity are highest—Manicaland and Mashonaland. If the argument is that cash cropping raises incomes in rural areas and therefore improves access to nutritious food, this is relevant only where there are local markets for nutrient-dense foods. This is usually not the case in Zimbabwe.

Overemphasis on maize

A major problem highlighted in the UN report is the dependence on maize in the Zimbabwean diet. Although maize can be part of a healthy diet, its nutritional worth is severely limited when it becomes the dominant food source.

Maize was first introduced to southern Africa around a century ago, replacing indigenous millet and sorghum as the national staple. Maize production was boosted by the development of the SR-52 hybrid in Rhodesia in 1964, which increased yields by more than 300%. Agricultural investment became focused on developing maize varieties and markets at the expense of the more nutritious millet and sorghum, which are tolerant to drought, pests and diseases and require less fertilizer and pesticides than maize, making them more affordable for smallholder farmer production. When farmers began to select their own, more drought-tolerant maize varieties, the government made it illegal to sell open pollinated maize, forcing farmers into a debt cycle, as they had to buy hybrid seed, fertilizers and pesticides from companies owned by whites. Historically, most maize was produced by white commercial farmers and this is where the narrative that Zimbabwe was the ‘breadbasket of southern Africa’ comes from. However, cereal security is not the same as food security.

Since independence, and particularly since the land redistribution program in the early 2000s, an increased emphasis has been placed on smallholder cash cropping, notably of tobacco and cotton, but also maize. Very little government investment has gone to promoting or developing better varieties of crops that are more palatable, easier to process and able to resist attack by birds. Markets for small grains are weak and undeveloped. The smallholder tobacco sector, meanwhile, has increased by more than 15% since 2010 and is expected to expand further. This focus on cash cropping has led to land degradation and reduced bio- and dietary diversity.

Policies, rolled out during the past five years, including the national nutrition strategy, the food and nutrition security policy, the Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation (ZimAsset) and the new agriculture policy, have sought to redress the focus on cash cropping to achieve a balance between household income generation and the production of nutritious food. Unfortunately, the recent Command Agriculture Program and the Transitional Stabilization Program—both emerging from the administration of the neoliberal leader, Emerson Mnangagwa—have swung away from food security.

Increasing food insecurity has also led to a cycle of food aid that has become so reliable that many communal farmers don’t bother to plant crops at all. They know that in the extremely likely event of a drought, the World Food Program and other major donors will come to the rescue. Although it is essential during an emergency, food aid further undermines local food security, created dependency and boosting the demand for maize. Instead of buying and distributing local surplus cereals during times of crisis, food aid is usually purchased from donor nations as a way to dispose of the subsidized surplus grain produced in developed countries. In Zimbabwe, during a food security emergency corn soy blend is routinely distributed to traditionally small-grain consuming areas, sending the message once again that maize is a superior food to small grains.

The malnutrition context

The malnutrition picture in Zimbabwe remains complex. More than a decade of national nutrition surveys show a dramatic decline in chronic malnutrition, from 35% of children under 5 years in 2005 to 26.8% this year. Although all provinces in Zimbabwe have a stunting prevalence above the World Health Organization threshold (20%), it is clear that great progress has been made in addressing this type of malnutrition. In terms of acute malnutrition, prevalence is below global target levels but seems to be increasing slightly. The highest prevalence of global malnutrition measured this year is in Mashonaland East and West, while the highest prevalence of severe acute malnutrition is in Manicaland and Mashonaland East (per the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Committee Rural Livelihoods Survey of 2019 and the National Nutrition Survey of 2018)—all areas of high agricultural production.

It is well understood that the most important time in a person’s life to get a good diet is from conception to the age of 2 years (often called the first 1000 days). In 2019 only 6.9% of children aged 6-23 months in Zimbabwe received the minimum acceptable diet—a very serious situation that has become a trend, compared with only 8% in 2010 and 4% in 2018. A study carried out by the Ministry of Health in 2012 found that most Zimbabwean children aged 6–23 months eat predominantly maize porridge.

It is well established that people who obtain more than half of their daily energy intake from maize are prone to malnutrition due to the low levels of lysine, tryptophan, vitamins A, B and C, iron and iodine. To achieve adequate nutrition, people eating a maize-based diet need to consume legumes or animal products regularly. In Zimbabwe, poor households seldom achieve this diet. The situation is far worse in the more marginal parts of the country (Matabeleland, the Midlands and Masvingo provinces), which not only face the problems of severe lack of investment in infrastructure and livelihoods, but also have to deal with the impacts of climate change and the severe land degradation resulting from pre-independence and early independence land policies.

Although few people are happy with the way that land reform was implemented in Zimbabwe, it has presented an opportunity for a more just system of land distribution. Some very credible research has shown that land reform has improved food production and food security for smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe. That stunting rates have fallen during the past 15 years is largely thanks to a massive program by the Ministry of Health and civil society agencies. Yet, I wonder if anyone has actually looked at the contribution that land reform has made to reducing stunting, as the dates of both do coincide.

Due to intensifying climate change, with projected average rainfall declines of between 5% and 18% and temperature increases of 4°C by the end of the century, Zimbabwe will have to make some difficult choices about the future. There will have to be a shift away from the agriculture focused economy and much more emphasis on supporting the sustainable production of nutritious food.

The UN Special Rapporteur ends her report by talking about her inspirational visit to Shashe Agroecology School. Indeed, this type of agriculture based on traditional knowledge systems and ecological principles holds great promise, but unless it is underpinned by supportive policies it will remain a fringe approach.

Further Reading