Aflatoxins are containable

Author, Ms Winnie Nanteza. PHOTO/FILE 

What you need to know:

  • Winnie Nanteza says: We need to adopt an open-minded but pragmatic attitude towards more sustainable solutions.

Harvesting and storing wet produce is reported to be the leading stimulant for growth of molds that cause accumulation of aflatoxins. Aflatoxins are a group of poisons which compromise the safety and quality of the food and feed. 

Aflatoxin-causing agents are resident in the soil and oftentimes are escalated by poor harvesting, handling and storage practices. Their contamination renders the produce unfit for consumption and harmful. Aflatoxins are invisible to the naked eye, colourless, odourless, and tasteless.

They are hard to detect even at high levels which can be lethal. These toxins have recently emerged as the leading food safety challenge in Uganda, undermining the quality of staple food crops like maize, groundnuts, sorghum, dry cassava as well as diary and livestock products. 

Beyond their dire effects on regional trade, especially in grains, aflatoxins have been extensively linked to liver cancer, child-stunting, malnutrition and impaired growth in humans. 

In livestock and poultry, ingestion of feeds contaminated with aflatoxins is associated with growth suppression leading to reduced feed intake, poor utilisation of nutrients and poor meat quality. Ingestion of feed contaminated with aflatoxins not only undermines agricultural productivity but also poses health risks to consumers. Therefore, mitigating aflatoxin contamination has tremendous economic and health benefits .

This calls for collective interventions and strategies aimed at counteracting the adverse effects of aflatoxins. It is important to prevent contamination right from the field and combine this with good practices during harvest, handling, drying, and storage, to avoid aflatoxin build-up. From the onset, farmers are advised to use improved and aflatoxin-free seed, control pests and diseases and harvest on time. During drying, shelling and threshing, one should be hygienic and keep the produce away from contact with water. Farmers should process only clean, dry and sorted grain, maintain a clean and dry working environment and use food grade processing equipment preferably stainless steel. 

Sustainable management of aflatoxins requires robust detection, surveillance and deployment of integrated mitigation approaches while increasing public awareness and responsiveness. Uganda needs to build awareness among policy makers and the private sector. This will facilitate institutionalisation and increased investments in development, deployment and scaling out scientific solutions to aflatoxins.

In addition to conforming to the developed aflatoxin standards, Uganda also needs regulations for monitoring foods and strict enforcement of measures on the quality of food at household and market levels. At the regional level, concerted efforts are needed to strengthen coordination of polices on safety and standards, branding of aflatoxin-safe products, and incentives for safe food. 

Currently, the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) is developing more pragmatic solutions. These include mechanisms for rapid aflatoxin detection for grain traders, robust surveillance and building public awareness. 

To conclusively tackle the aflatoxin problem, Uganda needs to use all tools in the tool box by adopting an open-minded but pragmatic attitude towards more sustainable solutions. Recent advancements in biotechnology can reduce the probability of pre-harvest infection and contamination.

For example, maize can be genetically engineered to give it the ability to turn off the toxin-producing cells when a crop is attacked by the fungus. This offers more effective means to prevent aflatoxin contamination in crops. However, for Uganda to effectively develop and deploy such solutions, an enabling policy environment for release and commercialisation of genetically engineered products is required. 

Ms Nanteza is a development communication officer at the National Agricultural Research Organisation.