By Beatrice Gachenge
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya has asked farmers to burn tracts of maize fields and plant alternative crops to mitigate the spread of a deadly maize virus that has the potential to wipe out 80 percent of the crop, a senior official in the Ministry of Agriculture said on Wednesday.
The disease - maize lethal necrosis - has caused fears of soaring food prices in east Africa's biggest economy, which faces a deficit of the staple every year and bridges the gap through imports from Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi.
Wilson Songa, the ministry's agriculture secretary said the virus - which makes the plant to turn yellow and dry up - had mostly affected the south rift, a part of the country's main bread basket and the eastern region.
"The total (affected) acreage of the last survey we did (July) is 64,115 hectares. Eighty percent of that crop was destroyed," he told Reuters.
"That means our food security will be at stake and that is why we are taking this disease very seriously."
The government fears further spread of the disease that makes plants to dwarf and age prematurely, could be catastrophic if it extended to Trans Nzoia in Kenya's Rift Valley, which produces 60 percent of the country's maize production.
"We don't know how serious it will be next season. With such serious incidence, we are advising (farmers) to go for alternative crops to try and reduce the (virus)," said Songa.
He said the combination of two viruses that make up the maize disease was "perplexing", adding spraying insecticides was under way and some farmers were advised to burn the crop.
There are two maize seasons in Kenya, March-May which is the main season and Oct-January Affected farmers have been advised not to plant maize in the second season, further casting doubt on the availability of the staple.
"The price of maize will have to be affected in the long-run as ... the yield goes down," Songa said, adding the ministry was optimist measures taken would mitigate the damage. He projects maize production will stand at 90 percent of 2011's output.
Last year, Kenya produced 36.5 million bags of maize on 2.1 million hectares, amid drought that saw prices more than double. This caused inflation to rise to close to 20 percent, though it has since fallen to 7.7 percent.
The government is concerned about soaring food prices in international market, after drought-hit the United States and some other grain producers, which are expected to hit the east African nation in the short term.
Separately, Diamond Lalji, chairman of Kenya's Cereals Millers Association said the price of imported wheat had shot up due to drought in Russia, a leading exporter of the grain.
Lalji said wheat landed at Kenya's main port, Mombasa, at a cost of 3,800 shillings ($45.24) per 90-kg bag, up from 3,200 shillings last year.
"All these prices will be passed to the consumer ... Of course inflation will go back to double digit figures," Lalji said. Kenya is a net importer of wheat mainly from Russia, Black Sea area, Argentina and some from Canada.
($1 = 84.0000 Kenyan shillings)
(Editing by George Obulutsa and James Jukwey)