A Montana State University (MSU) professor has developed a unique technique to fighting weeds, according to a story in The Prairie Star newspaper.

“There are several ways to kill weeds,” said David Sands, a professor of plant pathology at MSU told The Star. “One is by having 55 women in Kenya hoe them out.”

Sands has been working so these women don’t have to hoe so many weeds.

“They spend 80 percent of their hours hoeing weeds and trying to stay ahead of them,” said Sands. “Here in the U.S. we say, oh, there’s a better way than that and we spray everything with herbicide. The trouble is these people only have half an acre each. There is no way for them to wash their hands and no money to buy herbicides anyway. They can’t afford them.”

They can’t afford to let weeds kill their crops either. One particular weed, Striga or witchweed, is well known in Africa and claims 30 to 80 percent of their corn, millet and sorghum before the crops even break the surface of the ground.

In Ekwanda, Sands said most of the women have lost their husbands due to HIV, malaria, dengue fever or other causes, leaving the women responsible for growing the crops that will feed their family. Yet, even with so much time trying to hand-control the weeds, their crops were struggling and dying. And the women and children were struggling with malnutrition right along with their crops.

So what does witchweed in Africa have to do with knapweed in America? Maybe a lot.

“It’s hard to kill weeds,” said Sands. “If you hunker down and look around you will always find a nice little fungus that will kill the weed you’re after. If you find a fungus that is causing dimples or pimples and you are selective with that fungus, you can develop one that will knock the plant down completely.”

That’s what they did in Africa. They found a fungus that selectively caused some problems for witchweed but did not affect any other plant.

“Then we found a way to enhance the virulence of that specific fungus and make it meaner,” said Sands. “With herbicides you can kill lots of different kinds of plants. With bio-control you have to be able to kill one specific plant. This fungus only attacks one plant. It’s very specific, too specific almost, but we found a way to make it meaner…turn it into a Striga serial killer.”

In three years Sands got his idea to work.

“Now I could probably develop a meaner fungus in three months,” said Sands. “When you do something over and over again, you get better at it. It’s like changing a diaper. The first time I did it took forever. Now I can change them very fast.”

Once Sands developed a mean fungus that was ready to kill the weeds, he needed to develop an inexpensive way to get it to the people in Africa.

Sands turned to toothpicks, which involved growing the fungus in a petri dish.

“After three days, it’s a fungal paradise,” said Sands.

Sands then placed about wooden toothpicks in the petri dish so they were coated by fungus. After three days, he removed the toothpicks and set them aside to dry.

The coated toothpicks will last five years if they stay wrapped. Then, all Sands had to do was give the women a toothpick and teach them how to grow their own fungus.

“It’s simple,” said Sands. “All they have to do is drop the toothpick into a bowl of cooked rice, put a cover on it and in three days they have enough fungus to fight Striga.”

The women just place some of the fungus-covered rice in a hole and drop their plant seed on top of the rice, cover it with dirt and let nature go to work.

So far, nature has done a great job of helping the fungus kill Striga and increase crop yields.

Yet, another benefit has come about in addition to crop yields. Sands said the women now see that knowledge and learning and looking at agriculture with a scientific eye can help.

“They will be more likely to try something new in the future,” said Sands. “Now they may try planting a hybrid or using a fertilizer. Because they have seen this work, they are learning that they can take steps to better control their own future.”

It’s amazing what a simple coated toothpick can do.

Recently those tiny, coated toothpicks and Sands’ work attracted the attention of the international Gates Foundation. On Nov. 20, the Gates Foundation announced that Sands was the winner of a $100,000 Grand Challenges Explorations Grant to pursue his tests in a wider area.

“This grant is to help show them that it works safely, which we will,” said Sands. “We’ve worked on it for five years. Up until now we’ve just done a beta test. We have done it on a few farms, now we will be able to get five hundred to a thousand farms testing it next year and get some real data on it.

“If this works the way we hope it will, I think this is the way everyone will grow their own inoculants in the future,” he continued. “They will get it fresh and wild, mean and active; not freeze-dried and sitting on some shelf.”

Sands went on to say that “What we’ve done is found a way to take almost any pathogen and make it mean enough to compete with any herbicide. We just have to get people to understand that bio-control has a future. There are plenty more weeds out there.”

Source: The Prairie Star