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HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe is expecting to harvest 1.2 million tonnes of maize this season, more than double last year's output, state media reported on Friday, but the figures are likely to be disputed by aid agencies and farmers' groups.
The southern African country has consistently recorded a decline in the output of the staple maize crop due to shortages of farming inputs like seed and fertiliser and has been forced to rely on imports and food aid since 2002.
Agriculture Minister Joseph Made told the official Herald newspaper that an assessment had shown that better rains had helped increase production and that imports would decline.
The country would harvest 1.24 million tonnes compared to 500,000 tonnes last year, he said. Zimbabwe requires 2.2 million tonnes of maize every year.
"The assessment indicated that while some areas recorded a deficit in cereal production compared to national requirements, others are likely to have a surplus and these would improve yields," Made said.
"The improved crop assessment would also reduce the period over which we would need to import maize and other cereals from outside the country before the next harvest."
His comments contradicted Finance Minister Tendai Biti, who said in March the country needed assistance with around 80 percent of its cereal requirements.
The country has set aside $65 million for grain imports.
Aid groups have said up to 7 million Zimbabweans may need food aid in 2009, projecting that the food situation was unlikely to improve on the back of a low harvest.
The U.S. Famine Early Warning System in its last report in March said late rains had improved the harvest prospects of the late planted crops and that while overall output was likely to be better than last year, millions still required assistance.
The Commercial Farmers' Union, a grouping of the country's remaining white farmers last month predicted maize output would drop to 396,250 tonnes this year compared to 417,000 tonnes in 2008.
Zimbabwe's agriculture sector has plunged since 2000 when President Robert Mugabe targeted white-owned commercial farms for seizure to resettle blacks, hitting an economy reliant on agriculture.