A day at the inaugural meeting of the Moldy Corn Society
On February 14th this year – a day normally reserved for romance and copious chocolate consumption – a group of economists, agriculturalists, nutritionists, biologists, and others, regaled in a day-long discussion of the latest and greatest of another type of food: the moldy kind. A collaboration between The Wilson Center for International Scholars, Abt Associates, and the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa brought us this conference, Mycotoxins: Triple Threat to African Development, packed with a remarkable lineup of speakers, ranging not only in terms of expertise and research focus, but also in terms of the breadth of organizations represented.
But let me start from the beginning. And let me take this opportunity to put in a disclaimer that I am providing a very general overview of the meeting and could never cover the richness of the information that was covered during the meeting.
What are mycotoxins?
As Dr. Blackett from the Illinois Institute for Food Safety and Health explained, mycotoxins are toxic chemicals produced by molds that spoil foods and have significant health impacts on the consumer population. Mycotoxins fall under the category of food pathogens but have quite different characteristics than most as they grow at low moisture, in a wide range of pH environments, and in tropical and subtropical temperature zones. There are a variety of mycotoxins, aflatoxin and fuminosis being the most commonly referred to within the nutritional realm, and affecting key crops at various points in the value chain – starting from the field due to suboptimal environmental conditions and farming practices, and also entering or worsening during the drying and storage process – entering the food system by being either directly consumed by humans or through livestock given their use as livestock feed. The tricky detail of mycotoxins is that they are undetectable: they don’t make the food look different, they don’t smell like anything, and they don’t taste like anything. They also cannot be destroyed by cooking conditions, like with many of the other food pathogens (salmonella, for example).
Why should we be worried about mycotoxins?
This conference focused on the triple threat of mycotoxins, that is, on agriculture, trade, and health. Mycotoxins have impacts on all three of these which, in a nutshell, translate to significant economic losses – be it from losses in agricultural crop yields, economic losses from reduced trade due to contaminated products and import/export bans, or human and human capital losses from health and nutrition impacts. Let me break down these three categories in more detail below:
- Agriculture and Livestock: Mycotoxin contamination can happen at various levels of the value chain, starting from the field and going on through drying, storage, transportation, and processing. The Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that 25% of the world’s crops are affected by mycotoxins each year, with annual losses of about 1 billion metric tons of foods and food products. Most often, the rural smallholder farmer is the most affected and suffers economic losses from mycotoxins due to decreased crop yields, reduced crop value due to contamination, losses in animal productivity due to mycotoxin-related animal health problems, and human health costs.
- Trade: Aflatoxin is considered by the United States to be one of 19 “dangerous substances” that are banned from this country. Mind you that this category includes substances such as DDT and mercury; this should give you an idea of the toxicity we are talking about. In the United States, the cut off for human food is 20 parts per billion (ppb) of aflatoxin or less; so, anything used for export and import must fall under this threshold. There are countries in Africa where aflatoxin levels in maize are at least 1,000 times higher than this threshold, such as in Benin where certain samples were found to have 4,000 ppb. This has enormous implications for such countries, limiting, if not completely killing, their trade potential for these crops. There are a number of examples where African economies were devastated by losses in trade opportunities due to dangerously high levels of aflatoxins in their export grains. Moreover, a country that has this type of experience – a loss of trade due to highly affected export crops – not only loses real-time trade opportunities, but tarnishes their “image”, making them less able to export any crops from that country in both present and future (this happened in the Guatemalan raspberry case).
- Health: Although various compelling studies were presented throughout the day, it is important to preface that the health impacts of mycotoxins are quite difficult to quantify; it’s not clear how much of the health problems caused by mycotoxins are directly attributable to them. Mycotoxins have been strongly linked with liver cancer, birth defects, impaired immunity, and child stunting. As we know, there are several pathways through which children, in their critical first thousand days, are susceptible to- and affected by – stunting. Those linked to aflatoxin have to do with consumption of aflatoxin by the mother during pregnancy and lactation (transferred to the fetus/infant through the placenta and breastmilk), and then by the child when complementary foods – largely staple-based – are introduced around six months of age. Studies indicate that exposure to aflatoxin is common among children in Africa where maize and groundnuts are included in complementary foods for infants and young children, and this exposure is likely contributing to reduced immunity and inadequate linear growth (child stunting).
What can we do about mycotoxins?
Mr. Kent Hughes summarized the day’s discussion with the following five main points on how to move towards the elimination of mycotoxins and the triple threat they pose to Africa:
- We must try to address each level of the supply chain if we want to have sustained reductions in mycotoxins in Africa.
- We must forge a variety of partnerships, including the private and public sectors, consumers and producers, to address the issues in a more responsive and effective manner.
- Innovation – in the lab and in the field – that is cross-disciplinary and spans sectors, is critical.
- Communication of key messages – be it electronic or through extension – needs to be strengthened to improve awareness and understanding, as well as solutions to the problem.
- Understanding behavior and incentives across sectors and levels to facilitate partnerships and increase effectiveness and results.
This meeting was a first step in getting mycotoxins experts all in one room, and among many other more relevant objectives, to establish “The Moldy Corn Society”. Doubtlessly, work on mycotoxins will continue and expand, and I sincerely hope that as more research is done on the links between aflatoxin and child growth are strengthened, the Society will grow as will the frequency and richness of its gatherings.
For more information about this event, including recordings, presentations, and relevant documents, please visit the Wilson Center’s events page.
 Shmale, D., and Munkvold, G. Mycotoxins in Crops: A Threat to Human and Domestic Animal Health.