Harare - Zimbabwe's main opposition party said on Wednesday the country had virtually run out of the staple maize grain and urged President Robert Mugabe's government to launch an appeal for foreign donor aid.
Aid agencies say around four million people, a third of the population, will need food aid this year after a poor harvest due to drought and inadequate support to peasants who largely benefited from the government's controversial land reforms.
Renson Gasela, shadow agriculture minister for the Movement for Democratic Change, said the party estimated maize output from the just ended cropping season at about 500 000 tons against domestic requirements of 1,8 million tons.
Gasela said the country did not have adequate stocks to see it through to the next harvest and that some districts in drought-prone areas were already out of food.
"In simple terms... the country has run out of maize and this is a fact," Gasela added, bemoaning what he called failure by the government to quickly approach international donors.
"A lead time of three months is required to land maize in the country if such maize comes from South America, for example. From South Africa the lead time is two months," Gasela said, adding that millions of Zimbabweans could not wait that long.
Mugabe has repeatedly denied that his policy of seizing large tracts of white-owned farms to redistribute to blacks has resulted in food shortages.
Critics say it has destroyed commercial incentives for farming and that those resettled on the land have not received the support needed to make their plots viable.
Government officials could not be reached for comment on the MDC's assessment of the maize situation.
The opposition says the government has no foreign currency for food imports and that it will be hard to lure back international aid agencies after Mugabe stopped donors from distributing food last year, arguing that the country had sufficient domestic resources to feed itself.
Last month Mugabe conceded for the first time that Zimbabwe would need external food support after drought ravaged the staple maize crop in most parts of the country, but vowed that his government would not let anyone starve.
The United Nations World Food Programme this week said at least 80 000 tons of maize would be needed in six southern African countries including Zimbabwe between April and June after drought reduced output, but that only 27 000 tons was available.