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February 06, 2012

Bad rains in 2012 further expose the dangerous unsuitability of maize as the basis of African food security

by Chido Makunike

Across southern Africa, February is normally about halfway into the rain season. But in many countries, rains that were expected in October only significantly began in  December. There have been reports of long in-season dry spells in addition to the late rains.

Even if those rains are now heavy from now on until the end of the season in April/May, these conditions represent a potential food security disaster for the entire region. All of central/southern Africa defines ‘food security’ mainly by how much maize is harvested every year.

Optimum maize yields depend on quite precise cultivation requirements, including most favorable planting dates, nutrient amounts and water distribution. The current season’s weather conditions mean that none of these optimal conditions exist.

Unusually but necessarily early, there is alarm being raised about the huge implications of this. Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe are just some of the countries that have already begun to significantly revise downwards their maize yield forecasts. In recent years the good maize performance of Malawi and Zambia has helped plug the gap in neighboring countries, but this year the whole region will likely be suffering a maize deficit.

Good rains between now and May could salvage the situation somewhat, but the reality is that the likelihood of the maize harvest forecast becoming worse seems stronger than the chances of conditions getting better, for several reasons.

Malawi has been lauded for its inputs subsidy programme, which has helped it achieve maize self-sufficiency and surplus in recent years. Several other countries in the region have less well-known and perhaps less extensive than Malawi’s subsidy programmes of their own. All of them are based on supplying farmers seed and fertilizer for an October/early November planting. Farmers proceed to plant on the basis of a mixture of watching the weather, meteorological and historical data; with the first signs of the soil-soaking rain from mid-October being sign as the go-ahead to plant. In previous decades of much greater climate predictability than now, some farmers would even plant by date rather than by watching the skies; so taken for granted could be the first rains.

In 2011, the subsequent long dry spells that followed these early rains have led to many farmers having to dig up their wilting or wilted maize plans in December. Many replanted when the rains eventually ‘properly’ came, but under obviously very different conditions from those of October. The farmer who planted with subsidized fertilizer and hybrid seed in October will not again have access to them in December/January. That means much of the replanting will be without fertilizer, and with previously saved seed, rather than with fresh hybrid seed. Particularly where soils are poor and hoped-for subsidy fertilizer access has been the exclusive soil fertility ‘strategy,’ these factors alone mean a vastly reduced yield is almost certain.

Add to this the fact that there is no guarantee that the rest of the rain season is going to be ‘normal.’ It could continue to be characterized by low rainfall and long dry spells, depressing expected yields even further.   

It remains to be seen whether the rest of the season will be such as to ‘merely’ mean greatly lowered maize yields (Zimbabwe has already forecast a stunning 35% reduction in the expected harvest) or a disastrous regional famine.

Reliance on rain fed maize for food security means that if next season’s climate conditions are similar to this season’s, a food calamity similar to that in parts of East Africa is not alarmist to contemplate. Even in what can be considered ‘normal’ rain seasons, there are perennially dry parts of many of the countries of southern Africa that are almost always quietly in maize famine anyway.

None of the climate change mitigation strategies that are talked about (or perhaps more cynically but accurately, ‘talked at’) envision a changed farming scenario so immediate and so drastic. What has been talked about/at as something needing solutions at some time in the future is here right now.  

The coping strategies being half-heartedly discussed are totally inadequate to the scale and immediacy of the problem. In fairness, there are simply no easy answers. However, the potential African maize famine of 2012 is another pointer at what many refuse to wrap their minds around accepting: the increasing unsuitability of maize as the basis of African food security.

A fertilizer subsidy is of little help when there is no rainfall. It would be interesting to know to what extent applied fertilizer that was not then followed by sufficient rain actually scorched developing maize plants. The much hyped Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project will no doubt get more publicity in the coming weeks and months. Perhaps it will play some role in extending maize cultivation in areas whose ability to support this crop is clearly falling. However, strategies like WEMA only address the symptoms of Africa’s now unsustainable maize dependence, not the basic problem itself.

But there seems no escaping the fact that there are many and increasing signs that the fundamental problem is no longer how to grow maize in Africa’s increasingly maize-unsuitable conditions. Instead, the fundamental problem is one of mind set: refusing to accept that this iconic food crop should simply no longer be the basis on which hundreds of millions of African define their food security. It has long been obvious that it is time to concentrate minds, resources and efforts on alternatives, new or old, to maize.

Apart from the huge difficulty of such a mindset change, there is a humongous local and international multi-sector, multi-linked ‘maize cartel’ whose interests would obviously suffer from any decrease in the importance of maize in Africa: researchers, traders, governments, politicians, the aid ‘industry,’ farmers, and countless others. Yet their combined power and interests are simply not going to enough to change the fact that maize dependence is one of the greatest threats to Africa’s security. If anything good is to come out of the great African maize potential famine of 2012, it is to make it clearer than ever before how Africa’s ‘love’ for carbohydrate/starch that comes from maize is a form of tyranny even worse than the most autocratic government.

All the issues that will be discussed are now pretty standard and well known. However, as long as the next low-rainfall famine does not spur more discussion about why there continues to be so much focus on maize, a crop there is now clearly much evidence of no longer being suitable for cultivation in large parts of Africa, much of the weeping and wailing will merely be hypocritical crocodile tears.

It’s time to topple the tyranny of Africa’s dependence on maize for food security with a fundamental mindset change. The answers may still not be easy, but they are likely to not be forthcoming at all as long as so many remain stuck in the un-necessary linkage of food security in Africa to maize. There is nothing particularly special about maize as a source of starch, while much of Africa’s climate and soils are screaming out the message that maize is an increasingly inappropriate crop. At least part of the reason for famine is that no one is listening to this very clear message. The impending maize harvest disaster that the current farming season’s rainfall pattern suggests will hopefully make that message clearer.

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