UN's FAO says Zimbabwe food security improving

* Economic stability helping wobbly farm sector

* Aid cut and food shortages on the horizon

* Aid to small farmers helps yield 20% of national output

By Nelson Banya

HARARE, July 27 (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's troubled farm sector has started to recover from depths plumbed two years ago when it faced a food crisis, but funding problems could cut into programmes helping farmers recover, a U.N. official said.

"There was an improvement from 1.2 million tonnes to 1.3 million tonnes," Jacopo D'Amelio, a regional information coordinator with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation, said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday.

"There's also a feeling that the food security situation is improving from what it was in 2008, when the country had probably its worst output," he said.

International aid for the once famine-threatened country, better use of land, and the end of hyperinflation have led to the improvement.

The southern African country, once a regional bread basket, has failed to feed itself since 2000 following President Robert Mugabe's seizure of white-owned commercial farms to resettle landless blacks, leading to sharp falls in production.

The economy, crippled when inflation hit 500 billion percent in late 2008, has stabilised under a coalition government set up last year by bitter rivals Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

The new administration has struggled to attract crucial aid from Western donors, who clashed with Mugabe in the past over policy differences and now want more political and economic reforms from Harare before releasing financial support.

"Donors are putting in less money," D'Amelio said.

Aid agencies, which at the peak of Zimbabwe's economic crisis in 2008 fed about 7 million people, or about half its population, have shifted from handouts to providing seed, fertiliser and technical support to restore security of food supplies.

D'Amelio said aid agencies would continue to support vulnerable households and would consider extending programmes to sell fertiliser and seeds at discounted prices to those who can pay.

Relief agencies say combined donor support to small farmers accounted for up to 20 percent of Zimbabwe's maize output of 1.3 million tonnes in the 2009-10 season.

Separately, the U.S. Agency for International Development's famine early-warning systems network cautioned in a recent report that Zimbabwe's dry regions would need food toward the end of this year. (Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Jane Baird)


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