Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

IPM Innovation Lab Helps Uganda and Kenya Secure Permits to Fight Invasive Weed

This post was written by Sara Hendery.

Ethiopian farmers have a name for Parthenium hysterophorus: “Faramsissa,” meaning, “sign your land away.” The name is fitting – Parthenium wipes out biodiversity, reduces crop yields, causes human health issues, and taints milk when consumed by livestock. While native to tropical and subtropical South and North America, the weed has spread rapidly throughout East Africa, where it is invasive. 

Case in point: when Parthenium arrives on the scene, all hope for arable land is lost. 

Developing countries, with high dependence on natural resources and some of the last remaining biodiversity hotspots, are especially vulnerable to weed destruction. The IPM Innovation Lab, recognizing the current and future threat, has helped secure permits to introduce biological control against Parthenium in both Uganda and Kenya, two countries where the weed’s spread is rampant. Parthenium’s reach is far as it releases toxic chemicals against other plants and thrives in numerous habitats, hence the 45 countries around the world who have reported invasion. 

Attained in collaboration with the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), and Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KPHIS), the permits for Uganda and Kenya authorize the release of Zygogramma bicolorata, the leaf-feeding beetle, and Listronotus setosipennis, the stem-boring weevil, to abate Parthenium in both countries.

Parthenium is one of the world’s most destructive invasive weed species,” said Muni Muniappan, Director of the IPM Innovation Lab. “We began the biological control program against Parthenium in 2005 in Ethiopia and our research lays the groundwork for what needs to be done elsewhere for its management.” 

In many countries, there is no approved policy or established procedure to introduce, test, and release biological agents against invasive weeds. The lack of such policy has denied farmers the ability to control weeds without pesticides, which often eliminate important natural enemies of pests and pose their own human and environmental health risks.

In Ethiopia, the IPM Innovation Lab established the country’s first quarantine facility where the team mass rears Zygogramma and Listronotus for release, and conducts biological control trainings. The work has shown significant restoration of native vegetation and since Parthenium can cause major skin irritation and respiratory issues, improved health for those who perform hand weeding, which is often women and children. 

Wondi Mersie, who leads the project in Ethiopia and is Associate Dean and Director of Research at Virginia State University, said the Ethiopian research facility helped set a precedent for how Uganda and Kenya will design their own programs, and ultimately, sealed the deal for the long sought-after permits.  

“We’ve shared the challenges and experiences faced while rearing the two agents in Ethiopia,” said Mersie, “so that Kenya and Uganda can save time and resources if they come across the same obstacles.” 

As the global population steadily increases, the demand for arable land is higher than ever. The permits for release of Zygogramma and Listronotus will open the door for future introductions of biological control agents against other alien invasive weeds threatening global food security and the livelihoods of millions. 

With the newly minted permits, introduction of the natural enemies is already underway in Uganda and work will soon begin in Kenya.