Scientists based in Nigeria and Kenya have begun a major push against parasitic weeds that have spread across much of sub-Saharan Africa, causing up to $1.2b in damages every year to the maize and cowpea crops of tens of millions of small farmers.
The project, coordinated by the Nigeria-based International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), will introduce proven technologies for fighting striga, or witchweed, and alectra. Known by some as the â€œviolet vampireâ€ because of its bright purple colour, striga attaches itself to the roots of plants like maize and cowpea and sucks out nutrients, reducing yields and destroying entire harvests.
Witchweed primarily affects smallholder farmers who cannot afford costly herbicides. The most widespread striga species is estimated to have infested up to four million hectares of land under maize production in sub-Saharan Africa. According to researchers at IITA, this represents up to $1.2 b in losses for farmers and affects approximately 100 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.
The parasitic weeds have spread widely in Africa in recent decades; their prolific seeds germinate in response to substances released by the roots of crop plants. Because crop plants have more difficulty competing with witchweed in poor soils, intensive farming and the expansion of farming into marginal soils have encouraged their spread. Furthermore, witchweed is difficult to control because each plant produces up to half a million seeds that can remain dormant in the soil for decades.
Hartmann, IITA director general, says, â€œDedicated pursuit by farmers and researchers is delivering several ways to fight the parasite.â€ The $9m striga project is supported by a $6.75 m grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to IITA. Its goal is to help 200,000 maize farmers and 50,000 cowpea farmers who work in areas with high rates of striga infestation in Kenya and Nigeria. By the projectâ€™s end in 2014, organisers estimate that over 250,000 individual farmers will potentially see up to 50% higher maize yields and 100% higher cowpea yields.
The four-year project will focus on improving and expanding access to methods of striga control while supporting research to identify the most effective means of controlling the parasitic weed under varying conditions. The project will evaluate and implement four approaches: using striga-resistant crop varieties; using a â€œpush-pullâ€ technology that involves intercropping with specific forage legumes that inhibit the germination of striga; using herbicide-coated seeds; and deploying biocontrol of striga.
Project partners include the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, African Agricultural Technology Foundation International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology and BASF Crop Protection.
Breakthrough in the fight against witch-weed