Diseases and pests: New threats to agriculture

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Clemence Machadu
While Zimbabwe is projected to record a comeback growth of 3.7 percent this year, following years of recession in the recent past, multilateral institutions however project a bearish medium term outlook on Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe’s growth for this year is mainly anchored by agriculture’s strong recovery, which is estimated to yield a commendable 21.6 percent growth. However, despite government’s plans to intensify funding to agriculture under the auspices of Command Agriculture and Presidential Inputs Support Scheme (PISS) next year, the International Monetary Fund forecasts a decline in the economy to 0.8 percent.

Government is actually targeting to expand the PISS in the 2017/18 farming season by 125 percent to target 1.8 million households and widen the scope of Command Agriculture to go beyond maize and cater for wheat, livestock, fisheries, wildlife, to be unveiled at a total cost of US$334 million.

The IMF however forecasts the country’s economy to continue shrinking to levels as low as -0.9 percent by 2022. Agriculture in Zimbabwe is said to be the backbone of the economy and it is the Ministry of Agriculture’s vision to make Zimbabwe the bread basket of the SADC and COMESA regions by 2020. But how can that such subdued growth prospects be reconciled with the country’s investment commitment in the agricultural sector?

While the growth of the economy is expected to be underpinned by agriculture, plant and animal diseases continue to pose a serious threat to the production and quality of food, fibre and biofuel crops in the country, which undermines the sector’s contribution to the economy on a sustainable basis.

In the just ending farming season, for instance, there was a serious outbreak of fall armyworm which wreaked havoc in various parts of the country. Worse still, experts in the food and agriculture sector have already given a heads up that the fall armyworm could continue to multiply and become endemic across the African continent, meaning that in future farmers will need to increase their budgets for fighting the worm.

Estimates say that farmers spent an extra $77 per hectare on chemicals to fight fall armyworm.

Again, Zimbabwe is currently dealing with an avian influenza which has seen the country’s poultry exports and imports being banned, in a move that has since shaken the equilibrium of the poultry market.

Of late, Zimbabwe has been hit by shortages of day-old chicks and table eggs; following this bird flu outbreak which mainly affected Irvines, the country’s largest poultry producer with a market share of about 50 percent.

A few months ago, there was also an anthrax outbreak in Binga, which resulted in the death of one person and also infected 56 after some villagers ate meat from infected dead hippos

In light of the above, the impact of animal and plant diseases and pests to the sustainability of agriculture production in the country should not be underestimated, as it may result in a number of adverse consequences. The most direct economic impact of such outbreaks is the reduction in the efficiency of agricultural production, which also reduces incomes of farmers.

In the case of Irvines, it had to cull thousands of birds and also lost some of its market share, both domestic and foreign. Also many subsistence maize farmers realised lower yields of the cereal as they could not afford to buy the chemicals to fight the armyworm, which compromised their food security and prospects of earning more income from surplus sales.

The outbreak of diseases can also lead to price increases, as shortages would have been created, with producers using price to play a rationing function. In the case of recent outbreaks, we have seen the inflation for animal products going up.

Taking the latest available inflation statistics for the month of July, inflation for meat rose by 3.97 percent, fish and sea food 5.03 percent, and milk, cheese and eggs 3.87 percent.

These price increases reflect how the price of food can respond to disease outbreaks, and eat into the already diminishing incomes of the populace.

Another impact of diseases and pests outbreaks in the agriculture sector is reduction of exports. Pests and diseases can have major implications for farmers that either produce for export or plan to export.

You see, countries that are free from major pests and diseases tend to protect their local agriculture by totally excluding the importation of products from areas affected by pests and diseases or by making importation conditional to a series of precautionary measures. These trade implications can have a greater economic impact than direct production losses. Zimbabwe is currently battling to access high-value beef export markets such as the European Union, despite the existence of protocols allowing for free trade.

The EU banned beef imports from Zimbabwe in 2001 following outbreaks of anthrax. The continued infestations of the disease will therefore keep potential importers skeptical about the country’s agricultural products.

Food security and nutrition is another significant negative impact of plant and animal disease.

The food security impact is of paramount concern to Zimbabwe, and Zim-Asset actually has a component dedicated to that.

Disease outbreaks such as anthrax can result in loss of cattle that is used by many rural folks in farming, while reduction in production can also result in shortages of food and starvation.

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