Washington, DC—The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is leading a new project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to analyze the impact of aflatoxin contamination on the livelihoods and health of people in Kenya and Mali. The project will also seek to map areas at highest risk, identify cost-effective control measures to reduce exposure to aflatoxins, and disseminate findings to key stakeholders and policy makers.
Aflatoxin is a toxic, carcinogenic by-product of fungi that colonize maize and groundnuts, among other crops. In Sub-Saharan Africa, maize is significant as both a livestock feed and as a staple accounting for 42 percent of the cereal crop. Groundnuts are an important cash crop controlled largely by women.
More than 4.5 billion people in developing countries may be chronically exposed to aflatoxins in their diets. Common to tropical climates, aflatoxin contamination most often occurs when crops suffer stress, such as drought or insect infestation. Aflatoxins are considered unavoidable contaminants of food and feed, even where good manufacturing practices have been followed.
While developed countries regularly test for aflatoxin, many developing countries lack cost-effective ways to test and many smallholder farmers lack ways to prevent contamination, which ultimately impedes their ability to market crops.
“In developed countries, exposure to such toxins is successfully limited through stringent food safety regulation and monitoring,” said Clare Narrod, IFPRI senior research fellow and the project’s lead researcher. “Unfortunately, this is not the case in developing countries due to the prominence of subsistence farming systems, lack of irrigation, and inadequate drying and storing facilities. As a result, many people are chronically exposed to aflatoxins in their diets and are at risk for serious health problems.”
The ingestion of high levels of aflatoxins can be fatal, while chronic exposure may result in serious health conditions such as cancer and liver cirrhosis, weakened immune systems, and stunted growth. In livestock, some mycotoxins are acutely toxic and can cause vomiting, feed refusal, and decreased weight gain in swine. While the full impact of the toxin is unknown, there have been links to aggravation of health in HIV/AIDS patients in populations that subsist on legume and cereal-based diets and milk from their livestock.
“There is an urgent need to systematically collect data concerning exposure to aflatoxin contamination, from the farm, to the market, and on to the consumer,” said George Mahuku, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) senior scientist and project researcher.
The project will assess knowledge, attitudes, and practices held by farmers, consumers, and others involved in agriculture regarding aflatoxin, as well as their willingness to pay for testing and use of control strategies. A database of aflatoxin prevalence in selected sites in Kenya and Mali will be created to measure the effectiveness of control strategies. Risk maps that identify high risk areas for aflatoxin contamination will also be developed.
“Across Africa, there is limited awareness of aflatoxin contamination and knowledge about the technologies to reduce it,” said Felicia Wu, Assistant Professor, University of Pittsburgh, and project researcher. “More often than not, farmers, traders, processors, and consumers are unaware of the problem and its potential health risks. This project intends to provide these key decision-makers with much-needed information.”
The project has been launched in conjunction with the CIMMYT, International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), University of Pittsburgh, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, Institut d’Economie Rurale (Mali), ACDI/VOCA, and the East African Grains Council.
“We hope to come away with a better understanding of the economic consequences of aflatoxin contamination on poor people’s health and livelihoods, and their ability to trade their crops,” said Farid Waliyar, ICRISAT principal scientist and director for West and Central Africa, and project researcher. “Our findings will help lay the groundwork for a coordinated response for improving aflatoxin control strategies in Kenya, Mali, and elsewhere.”