* Strategic reserve is half its optimal size
* Government’s main focus is on fall armyworm
* Fears pest will infest sugarcane and spread (Adds detail, quote)
By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE, March 2 (Reuters) - Zimbabwe, which is recovering from drought and battling a pest that threatens its maize crop, has budgeted $140 million to buy maize from farmers for its strategic reserve, Agriculture Minister Joseph Made told parliament on Thursday.
Harare is holding 250,000 tonnes of maize in strategic reserves, half of its optimal requirements, enough to last six months, the minister said.
Zimbabwe has relied on maize imports and food aid to meet domestic demand of 1.8 million tonnes. Critics blame the shortage on President Robert Mugabe’s seizures of white-owned commercial farms in 2000.
Made told a parliamentary committee farmers planted 1.2 million hectares of maize for the 2016/17 season, a 55 percent increase over last season when an El Nino-triggered drought hit plantings and production.
He said the government’s main focus at the moment is on containing an outbreak of fall armyworms, an invasive South American pest that threatens maize crops from Congo to South Africa.
The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said last month that up to 130,000 hectares of maize, over 10 percent of Zimbabwe’s crop, could be affected by the pest.
Made said the fall armyworm was “most elusive and difficult to deal with” and might be spreading to the sugarcane belt in the south of the country.
“If it goes into sugarcane, it can stay there undetected and breed,” the minister said, adding the pest could also harm fruit and vegetables if not contained.
“Speaking as a scientist, it is not possible to say we can wipe it out. We will have to fight it by all means,” he said.
Made said the government had sent officials to South America to learn how to contain the fall armyworm. Agriculture ministers from the southern African region will meet in Botswana this month to come up with a response to the pest, he said. (Editing by James Macharia/Ruth Pitchford)