Jagger Harvey (second from left), the director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss, and Jisang Yu (third from left), assistant professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University, assess chilies and peanuts for mycotoxin risk in Nepal. | Download this photo.
Kansas State University lab working to reduce incidence of toxins in food
Feed the Future project focuses on post-harvest losses
October 10, 2017
MANHATTAN, Kan. – For most consumers, mold on food may seem like a small inconvenience. Cut it off or throw it away and get something else.
But on the scale of global food production, it’s a multi-billion-dollar headache, one that means many people – and even entire communities – will go hungry, become sick or even die.
“The global community has made great strides in improving food security over recent decades,” said Jagger Harvey, director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss (PHLIL) at Kansas State University. “A lot more people have been lifted out of poverty globally – about a billion people.”
But, he added, “We’re getting a lot more information about things that could really be impacting people, even when they have sufficient food.”
One of those “things” is a group of toxins produced by fungi in the environment, otherwise known as mycotoxins. At very high levels, people could die even from short-term exposure, and many of the toxins found in food are carcinogens.
Mycotoxins typically appear in the food chain as a result of a fungal infection in crops, caused by weather or other environmental conditions. Infected crops don’t necessarily have to to reach the world’s food supply; when discovered they can be thrown away, decontaminated or otherwise safely treated for non-human uses, such as livestock feed. But this is often not the case in developing country food systems.
“These toxins are predicted to potentially contaminate a quarter of the global food supply, putting 4.5 billion people at risk. It’s a huge issue,” Harvey said.
Harvey noted that in many countries, toxins can cause stunting in children, a problem caused in part by poor nutrition in early childhood. The World Health Organization reports that approximately 155 million children under age 5 suffer from stunting, which often leads to difficulties learning in school and reduced earning as adults.
“Overall, the presence of toxins in food keeps people, communities and nations from realizing their full, vibrant potential,” said Harvey, whose lab focuses its work in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana and Guatemala.
Through Kansas State’s Post-Harvest Loss Innovation Lab, Harvey is leading a project in Nepal that is looking at ways to reduce food loss related to human health issues due to toxins. Research focuses on pre- and post-harvest issues, and potential solutions, from farm to market.
The lab is conducting mycotoxin assessments as a key component of its program in all seven countries it has worked in (Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, Nepal and Afghanistan), and it is taking the research a step further in Nepal by conducting a broader assessment of the value chain across multiple commodities. The project is also using results from market and household surveys and environmental information to create analytical models that can help identify and predict commodities and geographical areas at higher risk of mycotoxin contamination.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done to understand global distribution and context-appropriate interventions for these toxins,” Harvey said. “Nonetheless, we understand a great deal about effective technical approaches, such as improving agricultural practices, breeding for less susceptible varieties of different crops, and understanding what we can do with contaminated grains to use them safely as feed for animals.”
Harvey said some animals are less susceptible to the toxins and do not pass them through to animal-sourced food, Harvey said.
“These toxins can be a major issue overseas and in the U.S.,” he added. “Our program as well as others are working to talk with policymakers, the private sector, regulators, national systems, universities, civil society and others to come up with a collective approach to uncovering the scope and dynamics of this problem. Then, we will work together aggressively and impatiently to make as rapid strides as possible to reduce the prevalence of these toxins in food.”
A recent study from Michigan State University indicated that U.S. corn production losses due to one particular toxin – aflatoxin – could reach $1.68 billion in a bad year. But even in years when the environment is not as conducive to mold growth, corn losses due to aflatoxin could frequently reach $52 million in the U.S.
“What that tells us is that even in the U.S., it can be a huge problem, and that’s just in production, much less in other parts of the chain,” Harvey said.
He noted that the incidence of aflatoxin and other toxins in Kansas and other states varies from year to year.
“But in some of the countries we’re working in, it tends to be a problem every year,” Harvey said. “(In) surveys of toxin exposure in some of these countries, we’re finding that a lot of people are being exposed to it, and such factors as gender, age and socioeconomic status do not matter.”
Before joining K-State, Harvey was a senior scientist at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute Hub in Kenya, where he worked with breeders in East Africa to screen for crop varieties that will accumulate less toxin.
The Australian-funded, broadly collaborative project conducted on-farm surveys, to identify practices that can reduce the risk of fungus on crops, as well as working with national researchers and the private sector to enhance readiness to detect and respond to contamination issues as they arise.
“There are multiple points – pre-harvest, at harvest, post-harvest, in processing, transportation – along the entire value chain where you can have contamination,” Harvey said.
“One of the challenges is that it can be invisible,” he added. “You can have perfectly good looking corn kernels and they can be tens of times – if not more – over the legal limit (set by such governing bodies as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and similar in-country regulatory bodies). So the first challenge is detecting it in the first place.
“What we’re trying to do, working with national partners (in other countries), is to understand what programs are already out there, which good agricultural practices they’re already promoting as a national system, and how we can adapt what’s being done.”
Harvey said the research done overseas is helping to reduce potential problems in the United States.
“We’ll be better prepared to have less and less contamination as we study this in countries where, year in and year out, it’s a problem,” he said. “We’ll learn much faster by studying these things where they’re occurring more often.
“All of that contributes to a more productive society, helps drive development, and gives more stability (to countries). And in a volatile world, that ultimately benefits all of us, including those of us in the U.S.”
Learn more about Kansas State University’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss at www.ksu.edu/phl.