BBC program features plant scientist from Montana State University

MSU News Service
Farm Forum

BOZEMAN, Mont. — The longtime work of a Montana State University plant scientist to combat a common parasitic weed that affects farmers in nearly 20 African countries was recently featured by the BBC program Newsday.

David Sands, a professor in the department of plant sciences and plant pathology in MSU’s College of Agriculture, has studied striga for more than a decade. The purple-flowered weed causes $7 billion to $10 billion in agricultural losses for smallholder farmers across northern Africa each year. Sands’ research focuses on a unique fungus, native to Africa, that can be used as a biocontrol to combat striga damage to agricultural crops like sorghum, millet and okra.

“We were lucky to find such a good biocontrol,” said Sands in the BBC interview. “Without using genetically modified organisms, we were able to find a really good killer fungus (against striga).”

The fungus, called Fusarium oxysporum, is abbreviated FOXY in Sands’ research. His studies led to a collaboration with his brother, John, a retired surgeon who had spent time in Kenya and had seen the impacts of striga on local agricultural operations and the resulting malnutrition due to crop losses. In 2008 they created the Toothpick Project, a nonprofit that works with scientists across Africa to develop FOXY into a viable agricultural biocontrol.

Over the past decade, Sands and his fellow scientists have used plant genetics to select strains of the fungus that are more adept at killing striga while leaving crops unaffected. The fungus is cultivated in a laboratory and grown on toothpicks, which gave the project its name. Those toothpicks are then stored in containers of cooked rice, which provide just the right combination of moisture and temperature to allow the fungus to incubate. Farmers can then incorporate that rice into their planting, putting it in the soil along with their seed.

“The fungus takes it from there,” said Sands. “It kills the striga and allows the seeds to germinate.”

Sands’ current work at MSU also seeks to address invasive weeds and precision agriculture at home in Montana, working in collaboration with the Montana Department of Agriculture. His biocontrol research explores natural mechanisms to combat weeds that affect crops in the region, just as FOXY can be used to combat striga. He also researches alternative crops such as gluten-free grains and low glycemic crops such as peas, oats and potatoes.

With the help of a 2014 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the team at the Toothpick Project, now directed by Sands’ daughter Claire Sands Baker, began a large-scale test, incorporating FOXY into use on 500 farms across Kenya. The benefits were nearly immediate and universal, according to Sands.

“(Striga) could take 20% (to) 80% of your anticipated yield, which is huge if you’re a farmer relying on your small farm,” said Sands. “In two growing seasons, we increased the yield for local small farmers, all 500 of them, by an average of 42% (to) 56%.”

The Toothpick Project continues to adapt FOXY through genetic research, with the team that includes scientists from 12 countries, including the African nations of Benin, Cameroon, Ghana and Mali. The nonprofit partners with the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization and Welthungerhilfe, a German nonprofit dedicated to ending world hunger and addressing extreme poverty.

Sands’ interview with the BBC can be accessed at https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p09crtqq.