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By Tanisha Heiberg
PRETORIA, Feb 6 (Reuters) - South Africa's agriculture minister said on Monday the country was taking measures to determine the extent of damage from an invasion of the crop-eating fall armyworm, and could not yet estimate the impact on farm output.
This is the first time the pest has been detected in Africa's biggest grain producer. It can cause extensive crop damage and has a preference for maize, the regional staple.
Countries with confirmed outbreaks can face import bans on their agricultural products because armyworm is classified as a quarantine pest. The fall armyworm is an invasive Central American species that is harder to detect and eradicate than its African counterpart.
Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister, Senzeni Zokwana said the fall armyworm had been positively identified from samples collected in the northern Limpopo province.
He said the pest was a strong flyer and could be distributed by prevailing winds over large distances.
"It is difficult in crop production to determine the scale of what you will harvest as that process is informed by a number of other factors including the prevalence of rain ... but of course the reason we want to react very quickly is to make sure we minimize the damage if it is possible," he told a media conference.
His ministry was registering pesticides for use against the fall armyworm as "no pesticide was previously registered to be used against it," he said. Two pesticides had been registered.
Zokwana said South Africa would take part in an emergency meeting called by the Food and Agricultural Organization in Zimbabwe's capital next week to shape a coordinated emergency response to the armyworm threat in the region.
Suspected outbreaks have also been noted in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi. They follow a crippling El Nino-triggered drought which scorched much of the region last year, hitting crop production and leaving millions in need of food aid.
(Writing by James Macharia, editing by David Evans)