Thursday, October 28, 2010

Turning Ragweed into a Cash Crop

Allergy season has arrived and 30 percent of American’s curse the pollen production of common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) this time of year while they suffer the symptoms of “hay fever.”

But thanks to a study being conducted at University of Missouri’s Southwest Center in Mt. Vernon, common ragweed could change from a curse to a money maker for some Missouri farmers.

Pharmaceutical companies have actually been collecting pollen from ragweed for years to create antigens for use in allergy medications. Harvesting of the pollen is done by harvesting ragweed pollen from plants that grow naturally in the field.

Many times, the weed has taken over a field after a cultivated crop has been harvested.

The goal of researchers and MU Extension specialists involved with this project is to improve pollen count and quality.

A 2009 a study at the Southwest Center focused on the production of Ambrosia artemisiifolia for a pollen collection company located in Missouri. Various parameters of ragweed production, feasibility of producing it in Missouri as a crop and field experimentation options were studied.

“The goal of the project was to identify how to improve the agronomical growing of Ambrosia artemisiifolia,” said Jay Chism, an agronomy specialist with MU Extension in Barton County. “The main purpose was to determine if large scale cultivation of Ambrosia is feasible and to determine the amount of land required to satisfy the long term demands for the development of antigens for allergy relief.”

Experimentation was in a controlled greenhouse and in field trials. A crop was grown on two local farms to follow on-farm growing conditions.

The study involved trials with density variation, fertilizer applications, irrigation of plots and various soil preparations. Studies also compared seed collected locally versus seed collected outside Missouri.

“Thus far the jury is still out in terms of any role fertilization plays,” says Ed Browning, natural resource engineering specialist with University of Missouri Extension in Jasper County. “Higher densities, for the most part, tend to yield more pollen, but there can be greater pollen yield per plant depending on other factors. We’ve proven that we can plant it and get it to grow. We just need to find the right combination to get it to really produce.”

According to information from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, among those Americans who are allergic to pollen-producing plants, 75 percent are allergic to ragweed. Over 30 percent of Americans suffer from “hay fever.” Symptoms include eye irritation, runny nose, stuffy nose, puffy eyes, sneezing and an inflamed and itchy hose and throat.

The research project at the Southwest Center could help ease those symptoms by contributing quality pollen to the development of more effective allergy medications and diagnostic tests.
(by David Burton, MU Civic Communications Specialist)

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