South Africa's department of agriculture said on Friday that scientific tests have confirmed the presence of the invasive fall armyworm in the maize belt, the first time the crop-damaging pest has been detected there.
The fall armyworm, so called because it eats its way through most of the vegetation in its way as it marches through crops, is native to North and South America but was identified for the first time in Africa previous year.
While armyworm mainly affects maize, it has also been recorded eating more than 100 different plant species, causing major damage to crops such as rice and sugarcane as well as cabbage, beet and soybeans.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has announced an emergency regional meeting to be held on February 14-16 in Harare, Zimbabwe after the pest was also identified in southern Africa. Much of Africa relies on maize as a staple food.
"This invasive species is now a serious pest spreading quickly in tropical Africa and with the potential to spread to Asia". Scientists have found it in Zimbabwe, and reports state it may be in Zambia, Malawi, Namibia, Mozambique, and South Africa as well.
He said the pest was a strong flyer and could be distributed by prevailing winds over large distances.
Researchers working at CABI's Plantwise plant clinics identified two species of fall armyworms in Ghana past year, the results of which were confirmed by DNA analysis at the organization's molecular laboratory in the UK. They have been known to destroy 90 percent of the crop in fields they infest. Cabi scientists are now working to understand how the worm reached Africa, how it spreads, and how farmers in the continent could control its spread in an environmentally friendly manner.
Most farmers in the Americas have used chemical treatments to fight armyworm infestations with mixed results, CABI's research posited.
The South African Emergency Plant Pest Response Plan is already in motion to deal with the pest, and is dependent on the extent of the spread and extent of the damage, the department said.
Countries with confirmed outbreaks can face import bans on their agricultural products because armyworm is classified as a quarantine pest.
It warned that the pest was attacking South African crops just as producers were recovering from two consecutive years of El Nino-induced drought.
South Africa's agriculture ministry said last week it was registering pesticides for use against armyworm.