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June 08, 2008

FAO expert predicts sharp drop in Zimbabwe cereal production

Zimbabwe's cereal production will fall again this year and imports announced by President Robert Mugabe will too little to make up the shortfall, an analyst at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation has said.

"Last year output was down 44 percent. This year we are expecting even further decreases in maize and cereal production," said Kisan Gunjal, an FAO economist who went to Zimbabwe at the government's request to analyse the food situation.

Mugabe, who faces a presidential run-off election on June 27, announced last month his government had bought 600,000 tonnes of maize to ease food shortages. But that will not make up for poor domestic production, Gunjal said.

Mugabe was in Rome to attend a food summit at the FAO where his presence was criticised by some Western governments, including former colonial power Britain which said he had no credibility in fighting hunger.

The FAO, a U.N. body which provides technical assistance aimed at improving agriculture and reducing hunger, is due to publish a report on Zimbabwe's food situation next week which is expected to paint a pessimistic picture.

Gunjal, a southern Africa expert at the FAO, said poor weather and a delay in getting maize seeds to farmers meant this year's harvest would be worse than last year's.

In 2007, Zimbabwe's 800,000-tonne maize harvest was only half of what was needed. Gunjal declined to give figures before the report's publication, but said the deficit would be bigger this year.

Mugabe's critics say his policy of seizing white-owned land to redistribute to black farmers has failed as he neglected to equip resettled farmers with the skills and farm implements needed to fully utilise the land.

Gunjal said that, although maize output had been on a long-term downward trend since 2000 when the land seizure programme began, harvests had been 500,000 tonnes lower on average than during the seven previous years.

"Production can be increased but a lot of things have to be right. Farmers have to have proper incentives to produce crops and then they have to have access to inputs on time. The main thing is the price structure," he said.

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