According to the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), 2.2 million Zimbabweans will face food shortages in early 2014, as stocks begin to run low in the period before the new harvest. In a recent article published in the Zimbabwean, Ben Freeth, former commercial farmer and human rights activist, posed the question ‘How can we feed our nation again?’. The question is underpinned by several mistaken assumptions: for example, that Zimbabwe was ever consistently self-sufficient in food production prior to 2000; that it was the commercial farming sector that fed the nation; and that shortfalls in food production are the result of land redistribution. In fact, Zimbabwe was never the ‘breadbasket’ of the region. In the decade to 2000, Zimbabwe imported maize in 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999. What’s more, it was the smallholder farming sector – not the former commercial sector – that was, and continues to be, the main food producing sector. This has been the case ever since the latter became more export-orientated during the 1980s. Structural adjustment in the 1990s also meant that those with capital and access to international markets were able to re-orientate their production from meeting domestic demand to exporting to European markets. The expansion of maize production on to marginal lands has also meant that smallholders have become increasingly vulnerable to variations in rainfall. Therefore, drought – and importantly, recurrent drought – is a hugely important contributing factor to food shortages in Zimbabwe that cannot be easily ignored.
Freeth’s answer, however, is that respect for the rule of law will ‘resurrect agriculture’ and encourage wider industrial and economic growth. When he writes about ‘the rule of law’ what he really means is securing private property rights. He states that ‘Unless Zimbabwean farmers, whether black or white, enjoy fully bankable and transferable property rights, as is the case today, all plans to feed the nation and develop agriculture will fail’. This is nothing new, and I have argued against this simple ’cause and effect’ mentality (perhaps a little too passionately) in an earlier post. Freeth, like Richardson, dismisses, all too easily, the importance of other prior and intervening factors accounting for shortfalls in food production, including: the expansion of maize production on to marginal lands; recurrent drought; the unaffordability and unavailability of agricultural inputs; the lack of available credit; limited public investment in agriculture; high unemployment; the prevalence of HIV/AIDs (which affects labour); and the as yet relatively unexplored question about the extent to which contract farming is diverting agricultural inputs and labour away from food production and into the production of tobacco and other cash crops (stay tuned!).
Food shortages are a reality faced by many rural households in Zimbabwe, and elsewhere, but we must be clear about the reasons and causes behind these shortfalls, which extend far beyond the rule of law and insecure property rights. Private property rights are simply not the silver bullet that Freeth would have us believe. A review of the literature on the association between property rights and (economic) development can be read here.