By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Southern Africa faces food shortages as drought, exacerbated by the El Nino weather pattern, delays planting and stunts crops across the region, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has said in an alert.
"The presence of a strong El Nino episode in 2015/16 raises serious concerns regarding the impact on food insecurity," the FAO said in the alert, issued late on Tuesday.
Regional harvests last season were also badly affected by drought conditions, raising the specter of back-to-back production declines of key cereal crops such as maize.
"In 2015 maize production, accounting for nearly 80 percent of the total cereal output, declined by 27 percent on account of adverse weather," the FAO said.
"The steep contraction has resulted in a tight supply situation in the 2015/16 marketing year (generally May/April) and raised import requirements for most countries."
Small-scale farmers in countries such as Malawi and Zambia are especially vulnerable as their plots are almost entirely dependent on the rain.
Maize prices in South Africa, the continent's top producer of the staple crop, are near record highs in the face of rolling heat waves and poor rains over key growing areas.
The December maize contract, which expired on Wednesday, closed at 4,160 rand a ton, almost double its closing levels last year, according to Thomson Reuters' data. It scaled a record high of 4,250 rand a ton on Monday.
The South African Weather Service said last week that temperatures would remain higher than normal and rainfall levels would be below average into the autumn season in May because of the El Nino, a warming of ocean surface temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific that occurs every few years.
(Reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Greg Mahlich)