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May 31, 2012

Rust-resistant Zimbabwean soya bean varieties raise interest in Brazil, US

The dominant narrative in many media about Zimbabwe and farming is that it is the country that went from 'regional breadbasket to basket case.' This is attributed to a controversial land reform exercise that dispossessed the country's once-dominant white farmers and parcelled out the land to (take your pick depending on your point of view) (a) hundreds of thousands of established and aspiring black farmers from whose fore bearers the land had been grabbed a hundred years ago by colonial governments or (b) 'Mugabe's cronies,' who can't tell a pick from a shovel, or a grain of seed from a grain of fertilizer.

All of this is simplistic and incomplete nonsense, but so many people all over find the mere mention of the word 'Zimbabwe' such a blood pressure-raising subject that few are interested in doing anything more than venting their spleen on the issue.

What is not widely known is that part of Zimbabwe's agricultural success invloved a sophisticated research capability, and that portions of it have endured the ten years of general economic and political upheaval from about 2000 to 2010.

The production of soya beans, used in pressing for oil and as an important part of livestock feed, suffered tremendously and is still battling to recover. Nevertheless, research in soya production has produced much sought-after rust-resistant soya bean varieties that have attracted interest as far as Brazil and the US, both countries soya research and production powerhouses, according to Zimbabwe's agriculture minister.

"We are the largest producers of rust-resistant soya bean," Joseph Made boasted at a Harare conference in April. "That material (soya bean) we are now sending to Brazil and the US (is) developed in our own seed houses," he said, while emphasising government's long-held position against the importation of genetically
modified grains.

Despite this success, the many problems still plaguing agriculture mean that the new in-country developed rust-resistant soya varieties have not led to the recovery of Zimbabwe's soya bean self-sufficiency.

The Financial Gazette (20 April 2012) reports that local 'cooking oil processing industries have been spending US$180 million year on imports to make up for Zimbabwe's soya production shortfall.  An industry executive said the country imported 60,000 tonnes of soya seed oil from South Africa annually, valued at US$90 million. 144,000 tonnes of soya meal are also annually imported from India.

''We have the ability of sending US$180 million per year to India and South Africa for these two products; (but) our farmers require US$120 million per year to produce them. Why not give our farmers the money and save US$60 million?" asked the executive.

Banks in Zimbabwe are as chicken about agricultural lending as anywhere else, a fear compounded by the lingering after-effects of the still unresolved discussion over post land reform farm property rights and security of tenure/collateral issues.

African Agriculture

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