Aflatoxins threaten Africa’s food supply

myco_corn_blogAfrica faces several food supply issues caused by various events from drought to flooding to conflict and more. One of the most constant threats to the continent’s food supply, however, are foodborne toxins known as aflatoxins.

As discussed in a recent article, aflatoxins are produced by fungus that grows on crops such as corn and groundnuts—both food staples on the continent. Consumption of the toxins over time can lead to liver cancer and other health problems, such as hemorrhaging, fluid retention, cirrhosis, and failure of the liver. They are blamed for hundreds of deaths worldwide each year but because aflatoxins’ effects are so diverse and incremental, they can be difficult to detect.

“It’s pretty scary because you can’t smell or taste the toxin,” Barbara Stinson, the project director of the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA), said in the article. And you can’t rely on sight, either, she added. “The fuzzy, green fungus alone isn’t a dead giveaway that the toxin is present.”

Aflatoxin is not a new concern, but it was not until a major outbreak in the 1960s that scientists first identified the threat. Over the course of a few months, 100,000 commercial turkeys mysteriously died on farms in England and scientists found that imported feed from Brazil was the common link among the perished fowl.

The culprit? A fungus carried on the feed.

Since then, governments around the globe have worked to limit the amount of aflatoxins that find their way into the food supply.

In addition to increasing risks of cancer, research shows there’s a positive correlation between aflatoxin exposure and childhood stunting, including lower birth weight and cognitive impairment. Some scientists even think that aflatoxin could explain the short stature of Guatemalans and could be the result of over 500 years of a corn-based diet ripe with aflatoxins.

“Anywhere there is extensive stunting, I would guess there’s aflatoxins in the food supply,” Kitty Cardwell, national program leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, said in the article.

The toxin primarily affects crops that grow in the tropics, a zone that around 80% of African countries fall in. But the problem is not limited to Africa as Guatemala, Haiti, India, and other south Asian countries are struggling to deal with the toxin too.

Present in the U.S. and other developed countries as well, people rarely become sick in these areas because regulatory systems keep contaminated crops out of commercial food and animal feed. In the U.S., granaries can reject crops if their aflatoxin levels are too high.

What can be done to stop the toxin from spreading in developing countries? According to the article, the answer may lie in biocontrol, a mechanism for controlling pathogens and pests with natural enemies. Farmers can box out the poison by introducing a non-toxic form of the fungus that can produce aflatoxin into their fields.

Distributing this “good” fungus is difficult, however, since the problem is so widespread. That’s why International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) is developing pilot distribution programs throughout several African countries, including Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation.

Since many people in Africa do not even know there is a problem with aflatoxins, putting a strong regulatory system in place could be the key to preventing dangerous crops from getting to the marketplace.

“In the absence of a regulated market, you can’t tell people their food is possibly toxic,” Cardwell said, as that would create too much panic.

This type of increased oversight could also help improve trade. Currently, the article states that Africa loses around $450 million USD to crops that cannot be sold due to contamination. If Africa’s crops could meet international food safety standards, it could hugely increase export potential and be a boon to people’s health as well as the economy.

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