- What is the aflatoxin problem?
- How do aflatoxins affect human health?
- How do aflatoxins affect Africa’s food economy?
Aflatoxins are highly toxic to humans and animals. Aflatoxin-producing moulds 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.
In high doses, aflatoxins can lead to serious illness and even death in both humans and animals. They can cause acute liver cirrhosis and are strongly linked to an increased risk of liver cancer. It is estimated that aflatoxins cause between 5% and 30% of all liver cancer in the world, with the highest incidence of 40% occurring in Africa. In the aflatoxin hotspots of Mozambique, the rate of liver cancer is reported to be up to 60 times higher than that found in the United States of America. 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. And limited recent studies show an association between aflatoxin exposure and stunted growth in children under five years old. 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.
Aflatoxins contribute to nutritional and economic losses in major commodities including groundnuts, maize, sorghum, cassava, yam chips, cotton seeds, coffee, cocoa, copra and oils. Aflatoxin contamination 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. 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.