Ethiopia expects its best harvest in decades this year - but, devastated by poverty and civil war, it is still far from self-sufficiency in food.

Four years after the 1984-85 famine that left up to a million people dead, many Ethiopians are still hungry or seriously malnourished."They tell us it will be the best harvest in 20 years, but still we need help," said Belanish Tadesse, an official of the international aid agency Food for the Hungry.

Despite a forecast by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization that Ethiopia will produce a bumper crop of 7.46 million tons of grains and legumes this year, the country will still need to import 350,000 tons of food to feed its 47 million people.

That is much less than the 1.3 million tons imported during the 1987-88 drought or the 1.7 million brought in during the 1984-85 famine.

"We are only feeding about 2,000 children in scattered pockets, where last year we were distributing food to thousands and thousands of people," said David Hardware, director of the Adventist Development and Relief Association.

He sees a sign of hope in this trend.

"It will be very difficult and there are so many problems. But I think, I really think, this country has the potential to feed itself," he said.

Others are not so sure.

"At the best, we're talking about things remaining as they are. We get bad rains, and you are talking about catastrophe again," a Western diplomat said.

David Morton, the director of the U.N. World Food Program in Ethiopia, said there was a real risk of a major famine in the early 1990s.

Economists estimate that the gap between what Ethiopia can routinely grow and the amount of food its people need ranges from about 500,000 tons a year to 700,000 tons.

Faced with a rapidly growing population, a cyclical climate that almost guarantees a major drought every decade and difficult mountainous terrain, Ethiopian agriculture has major problems.

"The highlands are devastated by erosion and deforestation. It is an incredibly difficult place to farm," one U.S. expert working for a private relief agency said.

In many of Ethiopia's most productive regions, peasants are running out of land.

The Eritrean Relief Association says it is caring for 170,000 displaced people in camps in rebel-held areas. It has appealed to international donors for 180,000 tons of emergency supplies in 1989, slightly less than the 196,000 requested last year.