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Opinion | Apr 1, 2018

Poor Food Handling Is Killing Us

Poor Food Handling Is Killing Us

Either our politicians and public servants have become overwhelmed with the numerous problems that they have to find answers to or, they simply do not know what to do. This is because most of our daily challenges are interlinked so that if you solve one, others in the chain clear off naturally. For instance, we have been talking about sanitation, and if we are able to surmount this, there will be no need to provide answers to cleaning up the food chain from the farm-gate to the market to avoid problems that insanitary conditions along the chain come with.

The fact that we are not able to control sanitation, has led to many deaths resulting from the food we eat. Indeed, it is sad that poor handling of our popular staples, maize, groundnuts, rice and cassava among others is giving us health problems and sending many to their graves. This is because they are contaminated by Aflatoxins, which has been defined by the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA) as a naturally occurring toxin produced by certain fungi, most importantly Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus.

A joint study on Technological and Market Interventions for Aflatoxin Control in Ghana describes aflatoxins as “tasteless, odourless, invisible” fungi yet “cause a number of serious health problems if consumed in high quantity (either at one time or over a long period of time).”

What is very critical in the study is the fact that Aflatoxin is connected with many diseases. “Given the link between Aflatoxin and adverse human health impact—particularly the confirmed linkages to liver cancer, synergistic effects with Hepatitis B, and potential association with stunting and immunosuppression contaminated food presents a clear food security threat,” as the study revealed.

It added that, “if Aflatoxin-contaminated crops are consumed by humans, Aflatoxin poisoning (i.e Aflatoxicosis) can occur. Chronic exposure to even low levels of contamination in crops consumed regularly increases liver cancer risk and can suppress the immune system.” In addition, Aflatoxins can also enter the human diet through livestock products if the livestock are given contaminated feed. High levels can be fatal. Children can also be affected through breast milk or direct consumption of weaning foods.

PACA said aflatoxins are highly toxic to humans and animals. Aflatoxin-producing molds affect grain and other food crops – maize and groundnuts in particular. “Millions of people living in Africa are exposed to high, unsafe levels of aflatoxins through their diet. Meanwhile, farmers miss out on export opportunities since their products do not meet international food safety standards.” PACA added.

In addition, PACA said, Aflatoxins can cause acute liver cirrhosis and are strongly linked to an increased risk of liver cancer.” It is estimated that Aflatoxins cause between five per cent and 30 per cent of all liver cancer in the world, with the highest incidence of 40 per cent occurring in Africa,” PACA added.

In the aflatoxin hotspots of Mozambique, it said, the rate of liver cancer is reported to be up to 60 times higher than that found in the United States of America, adding that, two independent studies have linked aflatoxins to immune suppression, increased susceptibility to diseases such as HIV and malaria, and a possible reduction in the effectiveness of vaccines.

PACA said recent limited studies show an association between Aflatoxin exposure and stunted growth in children under five years old, adding that, work by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Togo and Benin has shown that large numbers of children may be affected by Aflatoxin-associated stunting. This means that Aflatoxins could be contributing to a significant public health burden in developing countries.

Researchers say, Aflatoxins are produced because of the dry weather during planting, high moisture during harvest and inadequate drying and storage of crops. High temperatures and late rains lead to the proliferation of fungi and Aflatoxin production. In addition, poor production, harvest, handling, and storage practices– largely due to a lack of knowledge also contribute to high Aflatoxin levels.

The authors of the joint study said Aflatoxin contamination of key staples can affect the agricultural sector output, generally, and each of the four pillars of food security (availability, access, utilization, and stability), specifically. “Contamination in staples such as maize, sorghum and groundnuts can directly reduce availability of food. Producers of the affected crop may also earn less because of product rejection, reduced market value, or inability to gain access to the higher-value international trade market,” the study added.

The consequence of this is the lowering of farmer income which in turn limits their ability to purchase food for the family, and translates into reduced access to food. The study also said, contamination reduces use options for the affected produce through complete rejection or need to put it to other safe uses.

PACA said, Aflatoxins contribute to nutritional and economic losses in major commodities including groundnuts, maize, sorghum, cassava, yam chips, cotton seeds, coffee, cocoa, copra and oils. Besides, it also prevents commodities from meeting international, regional and local regulations, and standards governing agricultural trade and food safety.

“Contaminated food is effectively lost as it must be destroyed because alternative uses are not readily available. Small-scale farmers are hit particularly hard. Since contaminated crops do not meet food safety standards, Aflatoxin contamination undermines local purchase programmes by development partners and access to other markets,” PACA added.

It also hinders investments in seeds, tools and fertilizers, intended to boost agricultural development and trade. Through contaminated feed, aflatoxin exposure is detrimental to the health of livestock. This causes a decrease in milk and egg yields, with high doses causing serious illness. Aflatoxins can therefore have devastating economic impacts on livestock and dairy sectors.

The joint study said, Aflatoxin cannot be destroyed, neutralized, or removed using heat or chlorination, therefore, preventing contamination is the only way to ensure Aflatoxin-safe food.

The study said, prevention, or risk reduction, can occur at several stages. During the pre-harvest stage, biological agents to reduce toxigenic molds, adding that, typically, these agents

are atoxigenic strains of Aspergilli that out-compete toxigenic strains to colonize the crop. The atoxigenic strains are put in a mixture used to coat some seeds before planting. This type of biocontrol costs between $10-20 per acre, and is most effective when done by a trained professional.

They said, costs and a lack of availability are limiting factors for adoption. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research have developed “Aflasafe”, a biocontrol product that is hand tossed on the field 2-3 weeks before crop flowering. A single application is effective for several years for various crops, and therefore offers a potentially easier and cheaper biocontrol method than treating seed.

Unfortunately, the joint study said “Alasafe has not yet been developed for use in all countries, including Ghana; a special product is required for each country that uses local (as opposed to the current Nigerian) strains of atoxogenic Aspergilli.

The question that comes to mind is; are our agriculturalists aware of this? Even if they are aware, the problem is one that is cross-sectoral and therefore must be tackled holistically. This calls for urgent steps to find a solution to this danger.

Francis Kokutse
Francis Kokutse, © 2018

This author has authored 6 publications on Modern Ghana.
Author column: FrancisKokutse

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