Poor planning by the government coupled with the current drought could once again plunge the country into another food crisis, this time the shortage of beef. Although the government had initially said it would spend $130 million to save 170 000 head of cattle there are now reports that it only has enough money to save a paltry 23 000.
At the beginning of the year the country was estimated to have about 6 million cattle valued at $2 billion. The bulk of these cattle, 70 percent, was owned by communal farmers and the remainder by commercial farmers. Up to the end of September 173 000 had died because of the drought. It is estimated that the figure will rise to more than 260 000 by the end of the year.
This is quite significant because most of the deaths are form communal areas where the cattle are used for draught power. Over the past three years the communal herd has grown form 3.5 million to about 4.1 million. The commercial herd has declined from 1.8 million to 1.2 million. The disturbing aspect about this scenario is that although commercial farmers have less cattle than the communal ones they supply almost 80 percent of the cattle slaughtered for consumption. Domestic consumption is estimated at between 70 000 and 90 000 tonnes of beef a year.
Although the price of beef has gone up drastically during the past six months resulting in beef getting out of the reach of many, there are not too many alternatives particularly in the form of white meats since their prices have also gone up. Even the poor man’s relish, sour milk, is now unaffordable for many.
However, demand for beef will remain high and there are fears that if the country runs out it may have to spend something like US$180 million (about $9 billion) on importing beef which is currently selling for about US$2 000 a tonne on the world market.
With the cheapest cuts now averaging $10 a kilo, this would mean that the beef will not be affordable by anyone even those in the high-income group. The prices will have to increase drastically like those of maize meal when the country started importing.
The shortage of beef will, however, not only affect the meat market as there are other by-products like leather for the shoe and bag industry, bone meal for livestock, horns for glue and so on. It is therefore saddening to note that although the government realised some time in April that there may be a shortage of beef by October this year and set up a Committee for the Preservation of the Cattle Herd, it is only now that it says there is no money.
Instead of saving 170 000 herd, reports say there are only 23 feeding lots which can each accommodate 1 000 animals thus reducing the planned saving to nearly 12 percent of the original.