During March 2005, a mid-season crop assessment was carried out by an agronomist at the request of FAO and WFP Country Offices. This was not the usual FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission (CFSAM) which in addition to crop assessment evaluates the prospective overall food supply and demand situation and the food needs of vulnerable population groups. It was subsequently proposed that a full but relatively short CFSAM be fielded at near harvest time to update the crop assessment and to collect socio-economic data for an overall food security evaluation. This was the task of the CFSAM that visited the country from 12 to 19 May 2005.
After two days of consultations in Maseru, the capital city, the Mission undertook a two-day field visit to the main cereal producing regions of the country, namely, central (the districts of Butha-Buthe, Berea, Leribe, Maseru) and southern (Mafeteng, Mohale's Hoek, Qacha's Nek, Quthing). The mountain region (Mokhotlong, Thaba-Tseka) was not visited as there was general agreement that no significant changes had occurred there since the mid-season assessment, in particular since early frost had not materialized as previously feared.
The Mission was accompanied by government officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MoAFS), Ministry of Economic Planning, Disaster Management Authority/Early Warning Unit (DMA/NEWU), Bureau of Statistics (BoS), staff from the country offices of FAO, WFP and FEWS-Net, and an observer from USAID office in Pretoria, South Africa. Over 100 farmers along with district extension staff were interviewed and standing crops were inspected.
Area planted to cereals in 2004/05 is estimated at 208 200 ha, slightly higher than the 2003/04 official post harvest figure of 196 800 ha which was released by the government after last year's CFSAM report was published. This area figure is also slightly higher than the five-year average by about 6 percent. Although this season was better than last year, a combination of factors depressed the yields. These included late onset of rains and reduction in the use of improved seed and chemical fertilizers following the withdrawal of subsidies on farm inputs.
Overall, the estimated 2004/05 cereal production is 119 000 tonnes which is 15 percent higher than last year and 84 percent of the five-year average. There was a substantial increase in sorghum production, especially in the foothills of Maseru and Mafeteng districts. The late rains in March and April have encouraged the planting of winter wheat, peas, potatoes and various other vegetables which will contribute to the family diet and provide some cash income.
An examination of Lesotho's cereal production over the past six years indicates a steady decline. The decline is particularly marked in the central region which is the breadbasket of the country. This should be of great concern and should be investigated fully. Underlying factors are likely to include the endemic soil erosion, recurrent weather-related disasters (droughts, frosts, hailstorms) and the emerging consequences of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Cereal import requirement for 2005/06 marketing year (April/March) is estimated at 292 800 tonnes, of which 213 200 tonnes are expected to be imported commercially. With 60 600 tonnes on hand and in pipeline at the beginning of the marketing year, there remains an uncovered deficit of 19 000 tonnes, comprising 5 800 tonnes of maize and 13 200 tonnes of sorghum, which will need to covered by additional donor assistance.
A total of 548 800 people are projected by the LVAC in 2005 to have a significant food deficit and requiring food or cash assistance during the 2005/6 marketing year. Approximately 20 200 tonnes of maize equivalent will be needed to meet the deficit of the most vulnerable groups. The number of people in need is expected to increase from July into the hungry period. With a reported significant increase in sorghum production in certain districts, some of the relief food could be procured locally.
Chronic food insecurity is a major problem of poor households in Lesotho. Household food insecurity is caused by a number of factors including poverty, continued land degradation, reduced remittances due to retrenchments from South Africa mines, recent closures of textile mills and the effects of HIV/AIDS. WFP's bi-annual surveys show households in the southern lowlands of Lesotho to be experiencing the effects of chronic illness on their ability to engage in active agricultural production. Twenty-three percent of households surveyed lost three months or more of labour a year to chronic illness. Furthermore, households with chronically ill members eat poor diets compared to those not affected.