HomeOpinion & AnalysisTime to rethink large scale commercial agriculture

Time to rethink large scale commercial agriculture

There is a reticence among academics and social commentors in Zimbabwe to wholeheartedly endorse the principles and practice of large-scale commercial farming.Sunday View by Bruce Gemmill


This can, in large measure be attributed to a lingering belief that large-scale commercial farming was a colonial construction favouring whites. Denying black Zimbabweans the right to own land in areas designated commercial was driven by racist politics. This aberration does not in any way contaminate or detract from the proven superiority of combining freehold title with market-guided production.

Where large- scale commercial farming prevails, it is rare that food will be in short supply.

Nevertheless, there is a notion that a more egalitarian method of land holding should apply in Zimbabwe. This bias is understandable if one’s main concern is social equity. After all, can one justify creating a land-owning elite?


An attractive and easy argument to defend? If on the other hand, one’s main concern is to optimise agricultural production and conservation, then one is bound to support the notion that land is more productive and better looked after when held under freehold title and farmed commercially.

Food security is of rising concern on the agendas of many governments around the world. Surprisingly and alarmingly, the least concerned seem to be in Africa. Regionally, there is an estimated four million tonnes of  maize deficit this year. When food gets scarce, prices rise automatically and the problem becomes twin-tracked, availability and affordability.

In the 1960s India was agriculturally backward and unable to feed its burgeoning population. Mass starvation was averted by initiatives led by Norman Borlaug an American agronomist, “the father of the Green Revolution”, credited with saving over a billion people from starvation.


He led to the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, mordenisation of management techniques, distribution of hybridised seeds, synthetic fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides to farmers.


In the 1960s, rice yields were about two tonnes per hectare, but by the mid-1990s they had risen to six tonnes per hectare. In the 1960s, rice cost about US$550 per tonne, in 2001 rice cost under US$200 per tonne. India became a major exporter of rice.

We in Zimbabwe need to learn the lessons offered to us by the “Green Revolution”. For the past 10 years, Zimbabwe has relied on grain imports, either donated as aid or purchased on the world market.


This year our grain production falls short of the amount needed to feed ourselves; this is the 11th consecutive year we have not been able to feed ourselves. We are in a similar situation that India was in the 1960s, albeit at a reduced scale.

Time is not on our side, the food supply situation in Zimbabwe is precarious and getting worse. We can rescue ourselves. All that is required is the political will. Revive large-scale commercial farming in the still existing commercial farming areas and start the process of converting subsistence farming into small-scale commercial farming in the existing communal farming areas.

Hardliners say whites have no right to own land in Zimbabwe — racist politics intruding again. I am confident that when we have a democratic non-racist government, white farmers in partnership with black farmers will build a new, modern and prosperous agricultural industry.


It is perhaps worth recalling the memorable observation made by Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese communist party leader: “It doesn’t matter if a cat is a white cat or a black cat, if it catches mice, it is a good cat”

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