Elita Chikwati Agriculture Reporter
More than 83 000 farmers have registered to grow flue-cured tobacco in the 2013/14 season owing to the high prices the crop continues to fetch at the auction floors although there are growing concerns that food crop production is declining thereby threatening national food security.
Last season 60 000 farmers were registered to grow tobacco. Concerns have not been confined only to the country’s high exposure to cash crops but depletion of forests as communal and small-scale farmers depended mostly on firewood for curing the golden leaf.
Latest statistics from the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board have shown that of the 83 668 farmers who have registered, 39 278 are from the communal sector, 28 418 from the A1; 9 119 from A2 while 6 853 are from the small-scale sector.
Stakeholders in the agricultural sector have attributed the increase in tobacco production to the favourable prices and orderly marketing. Prices averaged between US$4/kg and US$5/kg last season.
Many farmers have switched from growing crops such as cotton, maize and wheat that have presented them with several challenges such as in- adequate funding and low prices on the market.
Statistics have indicated that cotton production has declined by 48 percent due to low prices being offered by ginners while wheat and maize farmers are always experiencing problems selling their crops.
The Grain Marketing Board which offers high prices does not have the capacity to pay cash on delivery. Farmers have to wait for months before they are paid and this has discouraged many farmers from growing the food crops with some now only growing small hectarages of maize for household consumption.
Farmers’ unions said as long as prices for maize and wheat remained depressed farmers would consider more lucrative crops such as tobacco.
Bankers also prefer to fund tobacco than food crops which are associated with high risk.
Announcing the US$620 million earmarked for the agriculture sector, recently, Bankers Association of Zimbabwe president Mr George Guvamatanga said tobacco accounted for 50 percent of the total resources.
“The bulk of the funds are meant for tobacco growing, which account for 50 percent of the total resources,” he said.
He said 7,55 percent of the funds would benefit the cotton industry, while 4,87 percent would be for maize, 3,52 percent for horticulture and 6,94 percent for sugar cane. Seed houses would receive 4,88 percent of the total amount.
Agricultural economist Mr Midway Bhunu said tobacco was an important crop due to its contribution to the Gross Domestic Product.
Last season, tobacco farmers earned more than US$612 million from the sale of tobacco.
“The increase in tobacco production is a positive development as many farmers have improved their livelihoods through growing tobacco.
“This will not affect food security as proceeds from tobacco can be used to buy food. We have other countries who depend entirely on the mining sector and they are food secure. The same can be done to Zimbabwe where we can use levies and taxes from the tobacco sector to resuscitate the Agricultural Rural Development Authority estates to produce food for the whole nation,” he said.
Mr Bhunu said there were serious environmental concerns as tobacco curing depended heavily on firewood.
“We should research on alternative energy sources such as solar, wind and biogas as is being done in other countries such as Brazil.
“If farmers continue to cut down trees without replacing them, we will create a desert and this will also cause global warming which will negatively affect farming operations,” he said.
Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers’ Union president Mr Wonder Chabikwa said the sector was aiming at increasing production to 200 million kilogrammes.
“There should be mechanisms for farmers to access coal nearer to their farms to reduce costs,” he said.
According to the TIMB statistics, 80 percent of tobacco growers are communal and A1 farmers who rely on firewood for tobacco curing.