Friday, 27 April 2012

Tanzania Launches Major Research into the Effects of Mycotoxins on its Population

Maize farmers spreading safe forms of Aspergillus
Mycotoxins are well known to be able to reach toxic levels in food, particularly grain and other crops that are exposed to infection by fungi such as Aspergillus while growing in the field. Once harvested and if the crop has been insufficiently dried and is then stored in large piles or in heaps in silo's then fungal growth can occur and mycotoxin contamination can quickly rise.

In developed countries this risk is closely monitored by sampling every batch of grain than comes onto the market for consumption. Strict limits are set in many countries of the world and food exceeding those limits declared unsuitable for human consumption. Unfortunately many countries do not have limits, perhaps indicating that they are as yet unable to control food imports - or perhaps they are countries were food import is not the main source of the mycotoxin problem.

In many countries in Africa most of the food eaten is provided locally by local farmers who have access to few facilities for safe storage of their produce and where the people have few alternatives to eat if a crop becomes mouldy - at this small scale it is impossible for government to monitor mycotoxin levels. It is also highly likely that these people are regularly exposed to far higher levels of mycotoxin than is set in other countries.

Tanzania has started to try to understand the extent of the effect mycotoxins have on the health of their people. This recent article outlines the health effects detected in Tanzania - these include liver cancer, impaired immune system and if the dose is large enough, death. In children there is good evidence that mycotoxins cause poor growth and development.

For some time now there has been a program of education and awareness of mycotoxin control operating in many African countries which has been successful at cutting down contamination in some areas, but there are still unacceptable levels in many areas.

The Tanzanian government is launching two new research programs:

The first project, a six-month research funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under the Feed the Future initiative, will establish the extent and spread of mycotoxin contamination of maize and cassava at the homestead and in markets, focusing on Dodoma and Manyara. 
The second initiative seeks to develop a safe and natural biocontrol technology that can effectively reduce aflatoxin contamination of maize and groundnut in the field and during storage.
There has been  signs that at least in the short term seeding crops with biocontrol strains (the same fungus - Aspergillus flavus - which does not produce toxin) reduces mycotoxin levels, but we do not know how effective that will be in the long term. At least when we get a better idea of the extent of the problem we will be able to make progress on targeting awareness.


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