by Jorge Rojas-Ruiz, Humanitas Global
Part of improving food security is ensuring that food is not only of high nutritional value, but is also safe to eat. Last week, Secure Nutrition and Abt Associates presented an analysis of aflatoxins in the food systems of Tanzania and Nigeria, as a framework for how countries and organizations could assess the issue and take action to prevent contamination. Aflatoxins are naturally occurring toxins produced by two particular species of fungi that can contaminate many dietary staple foods such as maize, groundnuts, rice, soybeans, and cassava. The aflatoxin-producing fungus contaminates the grain before the harvest or during storage, particularly in humid environments or during stressful conditions such as droughts. In addition to direct consumption of staple foods, aflatoxins can be passed through animal food products and breast milk.
Photo by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA)
Aflatoxin is highly poisonous to humans, and if consumed, can cause death. Long-term exposure to low levels of contamination, although not immediately fatal, is still harmful and increases the risk for liver cancer and may suppress the immune system particularly in Hepatitis B positive populations. There is also the possibility that aflatoxin exposure in children may lead to stunted growth and delayed development (although this connection still has to be fully explored and studied).
Poor populations are more vulnerable to the effects of aflatoxins. In many instances, contaminated foods are sold at lower prices in the market, and families cannot afford to discard possibly contaminated foods. Although awareness campaigns on the dangers of consuming aflatoxins and improved enforcement of food safety regulations can help prevent contaminated foods from reaching the marketplace, this does not solve the problem and can have negative health and income impacts on smallholder farmers. Farmers with potentially contaminated foods would likely have more difficulty selling their crops, and could end up consuming the contaminated foods themselves. In addition to the health impacts, the prevalence of aflatoxins can also lead to negative economic impacts for the agricultural and agribusiness sectors. Although they are certainly not the only limiting factor, aflatoxins make it challenging to sell staple crops and foods produced from staple crops in regulated markets, particularly export markets.
Given that aflatoxins are stable compounds and are difficult to degrade even at high temperatures, the best way to control its spread is by preventing contamination of crops in the field and during storage, and by detecting and removing contaminated goods from the food supply chain. One of the leaders in fighting aflatoxin contamination is World Food Programme (WFP). Through its Purchase for Progress (P4P) program, WFP has created a platform to raise awareness about aflatoxins and is working with governments, farmer’s organizations, and suppliers to make improvements in the food supply. This has not only led to WFP being able to source contamination-free crops for P4P, but also improved overall food quality and safety as a whole.
As with the larger campaign to end global hunger, addressing the issue of aflatoxin contamination in vulnerable markets requires a multi-sectoral response and strategy that encompasses education, behavior change campaigns, investments, policy advocacy and aid among other critical factors in order to create a long-lasting effect that provides economic stability and improves the well-being of populations.