Regional crop forecasters say Zimbabwe's coming grain harvest will be the lowest ever, and at the same time the United Nations says the number of people in need of food aid has increased to its highest level ever.

Crop plantings in Zimbabwe are down between 20 and 30 percent compared to a year ago, according to Fewsnet, the U-S Agency for International Development's Famine Early Warning System for east, west and southern Africa.

Last year, the maize harvest produced less than one million tons. Zimbabwe needs at least one-point-two million tons for human consumption alone.

Fewsnet says the even lower level of planting this season was caused in part by a lack of seeds and fertilizer.

There is a seed shortage because few of the new farmers who have taken formerly white-owned land have had success growing the difficult and expensive seed crops.

Economists say fertilizer factories needed imported ingredients and there has been little foreign currency available to buy them.

The World Food Program says seven million Zimbabweans, more than half the population, will need emergency feeding before the harvest in April and May.

Officials say there has been a slow response to Zimbabwe's food shortage this year. Some experts say part of the reason is that the main donors -- the United States, Britain and the European Union -- see the crisis as a result of bad policy, rather than bad weather or some other natural disaster.

For generations Zimbabwe was the breadbasket for the region, both feeding itself and exporting its surplus.

Agricultural economists say small-scale communal farmers traditionally produced slightly more than half of Zimbabwe's summer grains, and white commercial farmers produced most of the export crops.

Communal farmers have been weakened by the high cost of agricultural inputs, when they are available, and by HIV and AIDS. The commercial farming sector has been largely wiped out by the seizure of more than 90 percent of formerly white-owned land. Most of the new farm owners do not have the skills or the financing to cultivate the land.

Fewsnet has launched an alert on the deepening food crisis in Zimbabwe and has noted that the urban population, which receives minimal assistance, cannot afford to buy enough food. Zimbabwe's inflation rate is more than 600 percent.

The World Food Program recently asked the Zimbabwe government to release 240-thousand tons of maize from last season to fix the shortfall over the next three months. So far, the government has not responded.