The gloomy prediction was seen as a blow to analysts who have argued that Robert Mugabe's widely condemned land reform programme is starting to pay dividends.
It also illustrated the stiff economic challenge facing the 89-year-old president following his hotly disputed victory in recent elections. Memories of hyperinflation and starvation five years ago are still fresh.
The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) said an estimated 2.2-million people – a quarter of the rural population – are expected to need food assistance during the pre-harvest period in early 2014. This is the highest since early 2009 when more than half the population required food support.
The extent of predicted hunger was revealed in the government's own rural livelihoods report compiled with the support of the UN and other partners.
"Many districts, particularly in the south, harvested very little and people are already trying to stretch out their dwindling food stocks," said Sory Ouane, country director of the WFP. "WFP is working closely with the government and partners to respond to the looming food crisis and will start food and cash distributions to the most vulnerable in October."
The WFP and partners will provide regionally procured cereals as well as imported vegetable oil and pulses, it said. Cash transfers will be used in selected areas to support local markets and distributions will be gradually increased from October until harvest time next March.
The WFP blamed the shortages on various factors including "adverse weather conditions, the unavailability and high cost of agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilisers and projected high cereal prices due to the poor maize harvest". Grain prices are 15% higher than this time last year, its research found.
It did not cite Mugabe's chaotic and often violent programme of farm seizures which began in 2000, justified by him as a necessary step to right colonialist wrongs following "betrayal" by Tony Blair's government, but blamed by critics for halving agricultural output and ruining the economy.
For a decade this critique held sway as conventional wisdom abroad, but a 2010 study by Professor Ian Scoones Sussex University contended that, while the methods were inexcusable, 6 000 white farmers had been replaced by 245 000 black farmers and agricultural production was returning to its 1990s level.
A debate has raged ever since, with critics arguing that Mugabe supporters remain the main beneficiaries, thousands of farm workers lost their jobs and supermarkets are still full of imports rather than local produce.
Mugabe played the black economic empowerment card during his election campaign and pledged to extend it to businesses. He regarded his controversial win at the polls as a vindication and was lauded by other African leaders. But the rising tide of hunger could pose a fresh threat to his legacy.
Vince Musewe, an economist based in Harare, said: "The fundamental problem is that most of the smallholder farmers have changed to farming tobacco. It doesn't require inputs and it's the easiest route. We need to get back to producing food. What was the purpose of land reform? It's to feed ourselves."
But Mugabe's Zanu-PF is unlikely to admit mistakes, Musewe added. "Zanu-PF will blame sanctions and lack of access to credit and totally ignore the core reason. They never want to accept responsibility so why should we expect them to do it now?"
'It's very sad'
Ben Freeth, a white farmer who was badly beaten when evicted from his farm, said: "Quite clearly since land reform started we haven't been able to feed ourselves and the situation seems to be getting worse. From being the breadbasket that we were, we now need food aid every year. It's very sad."
He accused defenders of Mugabe's land reform of dishonesty, adding: "They focused on a couple of little areas and said production is back to where it was, and meanwhile people are starving. They also haven't looked at what happened to the farm workers."
The argument does not seem likely to be resolved any time soon, however. Joseph Hanlon, a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics and author of Zimbabwe Takes Back its Land, insists that land reform is not the disaster that has been portrayed. He cited a shortage of rains as hurting this year's maize crop.
"Maize production in Rhodesia and then Zimbabwe has always been rainfed," he said. "In the 20 years before independence, Rhodesia imported maize in seven of those 20 years. So much for the white breadbasket."
Hanlon added: "All the evidence, globally and in Rhodesia [white farmers] and Zimbabwe [1980s resettlement], is that it takes two decades for new farmers to reach maximum production, so we cannot expect the 2 000 land reform farmers to be there yet. So, in a bad rainfall year, Zimbabwe will be importing maize – as it always has. No surprise there." – © Guardian News and Media 2013