SOUTHERN AFRICA – The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has warned that recent weather trends associated with El Niño have decimated harvest prospects in southern Africa, pointing to rising prices and import needs.

According to a new assessment from FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning Systems, the foreseen shortfall in production, especially for maize, is expected to intensify households’ food insecurity, push up domestic prices and spur a surge in import needs across the subregion.

The disappointing forecast comes after widespread and substantial rainfall deficits in February, exacerbated by record high temperatures, a particularly damaging combination for crops,” the report said, noting that there are scant hopes of a recovery before the harvest period commences in May.

FAO warned that acute food insecurity in southern Africa, estimated at 16 million people in the first three months of 2024, could deteriorate in late 2024.

Food prices, already rising at annual rates above 10 percent, are likely to rise further and, based on current projections, South Africa and Zambia, typically maize exporters, will not be able to cover the supply shortfall, and Zambia has started importing maize to meet the shortfall.

Jonathan Pound, economist at FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning System highlighted that this combination of reduced harvests and rising food prices is particularly harmful for agricultural households as farm incomes are set to be squeezed while more resources will be needed to purchase food.

The report comes after South Africa’s Crop Estimates Committee (CEC), recently reported that the country’s maize yields are steady to sustain domestic demand despite a foreseen decline in production.

According to CEC, South Africa is projected to produce 14.3 million tons of maize this year, compared with 16.4 million tons produced last year, which was also the second-highest crop on record.

Analyzing the results, Dr Penny Byrne, Standard Bank environment, social and governance and climate change investment analyst said that despite the drop, the country should be able to meet its local demand.

She noted that domestic consumption of maize averaged below 12 million tons every year, hence the harvest should be enough for local and even supply to neighbours including Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

These countries have experienced trying conditions associated with El Niño, with an exceptionally dry February, impacting their cereal production.

The governments of Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe have already declared drought emergencies.

Further, teaming up with the NASA Harvest programme, FAO geospatial observations suggest that key cereal crops will suffer adverse impacts in parts of Angola, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, with Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique expected to see a notable jump in import needs.

Plan ahead for shift to La Niña

FAO, however,  has called upon the affected countries to brace for better days as the observed pattern is typical of the El Niño weather phenomenon in the region.

FAO points out that there is a high likelihood of a transition to a La Niña phase later in the year, with more beneficial precipitation patterns.

That makes it “imperative” to scale up resilience-bolstering measures enabling farmers to prepare adequately for the next agricultural season starting in September 2024, FAO said.

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