HARARE, Zimbabwe Sept. 22, 2004—Zimbabwe’s government on Wednesday dismissed reports of dozens of deaths linked to malnutrition as lies peddled by detractors and insisted the nation has more food than it needs.
Health officials in Bulawayo, the nation’s second largest city, have reported at least 162 deaths related to malnutrition this year.
Information Minister Jonathan Moyo accused the regional council’s health director, Dr. Zanele Hwalima, of “doctoring lies” meant to cause alarm and despondency.
The Bulawayo council, which is controlled by the opposition, is the only local council in Zimbabwe that routinely compiles data on food shortages and malnutrition.
Zimbabwe, once a regional breadbasket, was plunged into political and economic turmoil when President Robert Mugabe’s government began seizing thousands of white owned farms for redistribution to blacks in 2000. Inflation is running at 314 percent, the highest rate in the world.
The often-violent land reform program, combined with erratic rains, have crippled the nation’s agriculture-based economy. The government argues redistribution is needed to correct colonial-era injustices and has not affected food production.
The United Nations estimates the expected total harvest this year to reach 1 million tons of grain, about half the country’s needs.
Last year, nearly half of Zimbabwe’s 12.5 million people needed food aid. A U.N.-led assessment group estimates that as many as 5 million Zimbabweans will need help again before the next harvest in March.
Moyo suggested in an interview with the state Herald newspaper that even if there was malnutrition in Zimbabwe it wouldn’t amount to a serious health problem.
“Malnutrition is just . . . a case of not having a balanced diet. . . . People in the USA are fat because they eat too many burgers. That’s malnutrition,” Moyo said.
He disputed the low U.N. harvest forecast and said the country will produce a record 2.4 million tons of grain this year, well in excess of the annual consumption of at least 1.8 million tons, mostly of the corn staple.
“There is no food crisis in Zimbabwe,” Moyo said.
But Samuel Mavuti, the head of the state Grain Marketing Board told a panel of lawmakers this month that Zimbabwe had just 298,000 tons of the main corn staple. He said the board, which is the sole legal distributor of grain, expected total deliveries to its depots of only 750,000 tons by March next year.
On Monday, the U.S.-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a food security monitoring group, warned the grain delivered so far to the state marketing board already fell short of basic needs.
“The quantity of grain collected by the GMB as of mid-August is insufficient to meet the needs in urban centers and rural areas with deficit production,” it said.
While the corn meal staple was still generally available in stores, many poor households could no longer afford it, the group said.
“Hyperinflation, high rates of unemployment and low wages contribute to food insecurity in urban areas,” its report said.