President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF government has already warned that it will not accept any food aid with "political strings attached", although a second successive year of drought and major disruptions in the farming sector in recent years have resulted in the country producing less than one-third of its annual food requirements this year.
"Government will certainly sit down and decide which aid agencies or organisations to allow assisting with food distribution. We realise that there are organisations bent on using aid as a political tool to enhance the interests of the [political] opposition, and we are not going to allow that," agriculture minister Rugare Gumbo told IRIN.
"We are going through a severe drought and we realise the need to step up food imports, but we first of all have to get an independent assessment of the situation; that is why we have invited WFP and FAO," he said.
The FAO's Food Emergency Officer, Kisan Kunjal, told the media this week that the food assessment visit would determine which parts of the country required aid, and how much assistance was needed. A FAO-WFP joint food assessment team was kicked out of the country in 2004 after the government accused it of propagating false data about the country's food security.
Last month Gumbo told IRIN that although government had declared 2007 a drought year, it was not going to accept any food aid, but would rely on imports from neighbouring countries such as Malawi and South Africa to cover the more than one million tonne maize shortfall.
However, Zimbabwe's economic meltdown, which has seen official inflation rates of around 1,700 percent, and unofficial estimates of over 2,000 percent, has made foreign exchange a rarity.
The government's own food security assessment revealed that 563,000mt of maize would be harvested this year, against the country's annual requirement of about 1.8mt million of the staple food.
Gumbo said the government had already imported "a substantial amount" of food from Malawi, and that further efforts were being made to secure imports from other neighbouring countries.
Importing maize is set against a regional shortage of the staple food, according to this month's ABSA Bank Economic Monitor. The bank's April report said "maize production may be well below expectations ... Maize prices in response to the lower rainfall have risen to over R2000/tonne (US$285 per tonne) in early March, before easing to around R1,752 (US$249) [per tonne] by April."
Renson Gasela, agricultural secretary for the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, welcomed the planned visit of the FAO-WFP delegation, saying it would provide a clear picture of the extent of food shortages in the country. "Government has already declared this year a year of drought, and promised food imports, but it may turn out that the food needed is way beyond its pocket, since there is no foreign currency in the country."
Zimbabwe has experienced seven years of severe food shortages, blamed on a combination of the government's fast track-land reform policy, which saw white commercial farmland redistributed to landless blacks, and drought.