HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe's grain reserves are running dangerously low ahead of new but poor harvests caused by erratic rain, an independent continent-wide development bank said Wednesday.
The African Development Bank said the strategic reserves have become so depleted that commercial millers have been stopped from buying supplies from the state.
The shortage of corn has also raised prices of the staple food as 1.6 million Zimbabweans already depend on food aid, it said.
The nation has 92,000 tons in store, the bank said in its latest economic bulletin, but imports of another 150,000 tons are needed to meet consumer demand before the new harvest lands on the market.
In one province, three-fourths of planted corn was written off after a prolonged dry spell and other areas reported having had too much rain.
The state grain marketing agency sells locally grown corn to milling companies that is about $110 cheaper than imports for each ton.
The bank said the reserve stock was now only being used for distribution paid for by the government to needy communities. But it said these supplies were "erratic and in consistent."
"This is because the reserve grain is insufficient and transporters are not willing to move it to the affected areas because they are not paid on time," the bank said
The United Nations World Food Program said in a separate statement that the peak hunger period before the next harvests posed "the highest level of food insecurity" seen in the past three years. It said aside from weather patterns, the recent planting season was hit by shortages of seed and fertilizer.
Less farmland was also planted with maize, the corn staple, as more small scale growers turned to tobacco and other cash crops with quicker and better financial returns, the U.N. food agency reported.
Farmers' organizations have forecast total grain harvests this year of about 1.2 million tons. Annual consumption by the population of nearly 13 million is 2.2 million tons.
Zimbabwe's finance ministry, controlled by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's party in a shaky coalition with longtime President Robert Mugabe, says it can't raise enough money to import the shortfall for distribution by the Grain Marketing Board, the state grain sales monopoly, and wants private enterprises to share the burden. Mugabe's party insists private importers are driven by profit that puts food basics out of the reach of ordinary Zimbabweans who live on about $1.50 a day.
In the troubled economy, many families survive on a single meal a day.
Before the often violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms began in 2000, Zimbabwe exported its corn surplus and was seen as a regional breadbasket.
The African Development Bank said Zimbabwe must give priority to restoring collapsed irrigation schemes and save dams and water reservoirs that have been damaged by silting, often with soil from illegal gold panning upstream.
The government also "needs to come up with strategies to ensure that grain reserves are well stocked," it said.