This destitute country seems destined to be forever in the food handout line, so fragile is Ethiopia's agricultural system.

The difference between this crisis year and a normal year in Ethiopia is that tens of thousands of people face starvation where usually the numbers who starve can be counted in the hundreds.

International donors were slow to react to Ethiopia's recent appeals for drought relief because it was difficult to determine just how much the current situation differed from the normal condition. Now officials agree that the drought poses a major life-threatening crisis.

The worst drought of the century has also struck southern Africa and hundreds of thousands of cattle are dying. In Ethiopia, however, when drought hits, people as well as cattle die.

The reasons for the difference are many.

Kenneth King, the head of United Nations programs in Ethiopia, put the matter simply. "This is a bloody poor country and the prospects are that it will remain poor for a long time," he said. The country has always faced a food deficit, he added.

A few statistics tell the horror story.

Ethiopia is the world's sixth poorest country with a per capita income of $140, about 1 percent of that in the United States, according to the World Bank. Average life expectancy is 40 years. One infant in six does not survive the first year and one mother in 50 dies in childbirth. Sixty percent of children under 4 are underweight and one child in 15 is mentally or physically handicapped, according to the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF).

"Two-thirds of the households in Ethiopia are regarded to be below the income level required to meet the minimum essential needs of a family, one-third of them struggling on the brink of physical survival," a UNICEF report said.

Ethiopia normally receives about 250,000 tons of food aid just to maintain its severely deficient level of nutrition.

"In order to establish just minimally adequate diets in Ethiopia," the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in its world food aid report, "cereal import requirements for 1982-83 would jump to over 2 million tons."

With people normally living on the margin, drought pushes them over the edge and large death tolls can result, said Martin Mock, the U.N. World Food Program's senior adviser in Addis Ababa. There is no buffer if the rains fail.

During last year's extended planting season from June through September, rainfall was down by 71 percent in Welo province and 62 percent in Gondar province compared with the previous year. Tigray and Eritrea provinces were not so badly affected but both suffer the consequences of ongoing wars.

Total amounts of rainfall can be misleading. Gondar received about 27 inches in last year's drought, a reasonable amount in many parts of the world.

Ethiopia, however, "cannot capture the rain," Mock said, because irrigation in food crops in the highlands is nonexistent, and food crops cannot pay for irrigation projects because of the vast distance to cover.

Rain outside the planting season, when almost 95 percent of the country's food crops are sown, is worthless at best and can be harmful, like last months's unseasonable rain, since it spurs the growth of worms that destroy the crops.

Peasant farming, accounting for the bulk of agricultural output in Ethiopia, is among the most primitive in the world. Tractors are unknown. If a peasant is lucky he has an ox to pull a single-blade plow, often with a wooden blade. Otherwise he uses a pick or hoe.

Use of fertililizers is rare because of high import and transportation costs. In addition, uneven precipitation makes fertilization a gamble because fertilized earth will burn if there is not enough rain.

In such a poor country little is spent on agricultural research and extension work, and market prices often do not encourage greater production if the conditions are good.

Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam said in a major speech in January that for the past three years the rate of growth in agricultural production was lower than the pace of the country's population increase, about 2.8 percent.

Calling this an "alarming situation," he said the "basis of agricultural technology has to be completely changed if we are ever to achieve any productive growth."

He cited the need for better choice of seeds and implements, and greater use of fertilizer and insecticides.

Sticking to his Marxist principles, he also called for the development of cooperatives and state farms, saying "no country in the world has developed its agricultural sector by using small, scattered and limited holdings."

Foreign specialists say most of the large-scale government schemes introduced since the military seized power in 1974 have failed because they have been poorly planned and located. The failures, however, have had little impact on the food shortage since only a small percentage of agriculture is devoted to state farms and cooperatives.

Ethiopia's primitive agricultural system must feed Africa's second largest population. No census has ever been taken in the ancient country but the official estimate of population is about 32 million. Most experts think the population is about 10 million higher, however, meaning that at a 2.8 percent growth rate, the population is growing by 280,000 more a year than the official estimate.

Although the country is twice the size of France with a smaller population, it is densely populated by African standards, especially considering the lack of infrastructure.

Worse still, the population is often in the wrong places because of a centuries-old tradition of highlands agriculture. In eastern Gondar province, for example, peasant farming is carried out at an elevation of about two miles on the highest plateau in Africa. Few food crops are grown at elevations of less than 6,000 feet.