Zimbabwe

U.S. fears too late to halt Zimbabwe famine

By David Brough

ROME, (Reuters) - A senior U.S. official believes it may be too late to prevent famine striking Zimbabwe and says the country is largely to blame for its dire food shortages.

"Zimbabwe is heading into a major, major disaster and probably famine," Tony Hall, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations food agencies, who returned from a visit to Zimbabwe and Malawi this month, told Reuters on Tuesday.

On Monday, Hall told the executive board meeting of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), the world's largest food aid agency: "People will die and Zimbabwe is headed for famine. I'm not sure we can stop it."

Hall said Zimbabwe, formerly an exporter of food, was in large part responsible for the hunger because its land seizure programme had deprived commercial farms of thousands of skilled workers, jeopardising production of the staple maize.

The ambassador also blamed a long drought, a soaring HIV/AIDS rate which has eroded productivity, and resistance to biotech food aid.

Hall, who took office as ambassador in Rome last month, estimated that half of Zimbabwe's population was hungry.

"The international community is now reaching just 20 percent of the people who need food in Zimbabwe," he said.

He called on Zimbabwe to open its doors to a massive influx of food aid to prevent famine, which also threatens millions in Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland.

Hall, who estimated Zimbabwe would need 600,000 tonnes of food aid by March 2003, said he had seen many chronically malnourished people during his trip to Zimbabwe.

"They were weak, very thin and they don't have visible means of support," he said, adding that HIV/AIDS was ravaging farming communities.

Hall criticised Zimbabwe for delaying the arrival of biotech food aid, mainly maize, which was sitting in South Africa awaiting entry to the country.

The United States, where the genetically modified food comes from, provides half of all food aid that Africa requires and has said it will be unable to help countries that refuse gene-altered relief aid.

"All of the food donated by the United States has passed rigorous food safety and environmental impact testing, and in fact, is eaten daily -- and has been for years -- by millions of Americans," Hall said.

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