It is estimated that Africa losses about 670 million US-Dollars to Aflatoxin infections on certain food products.
A whopping 30 percent of cereals, grains and legumes produced are lost to contamination.
This means for the most part, farmers in Africa are unable to meet international standards as a result of the Aflatoxin levels in their produce.
In Ghana for instance, food production companies like Nestle Ghana and Guinness Ghana have always lamented about how they are unable to buy grains and nuts from Ghanaian farmers because of the Aflatoxin levels.
The economic cost for small scale farmers is that contaminated crops do not meet food safety standards hence undermines local purchase programs by development partners and therefore accessibility to other markets are also blocked.
Exporters are faced with rejects from border controls of importing countries when aflatoxin levels determined in prepacked food or raw materials exceed allowable limits of these countries especially the EU.
Nestle Ghana along with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) launched the ‘Grains Quality Improvement Project’ in Western and Central Africa because according to them, “locally produced cereals and legumes are important to our business.” Their hope is to reduce by 60 percent all mycotoxin contamination levels.
The Country Head of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Foster Kwame Boateng, reiterated the point by saying “while Nestle is looking for quality maize with Aflatoxin level of 4 parts per billion (ppb), Ghanaian farmers are producing maize which has between 100 and 200 ppb.”
For Ghanaian farmers, the unfortunate news is that although there is huge market for their produce locally, their products do not meet even the Ghanaian standard of 15 ppb (standard declared by the Ghana Standards Authority), not to mention international standards of 4 ppb for maize for Nestle and about 2 ppb for groundnuts for those looking to trade with countries under the European Union (EU).
What are Aflatoxin Mycotoxins?
Aflatoxins are natural poisons produced when certain mould species like the Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus grow on foods.
These mould species are particularly common in tropical areas. Maize, peanuts (groundnuts), dried spices and treenuts are most likely to contain Aflatoxins.
This means all food derived from these products are susceptible to Aflatoxins.
These include Hausa Kooko, kenkey, banku, groundnut paste, agushie paste among others.
The moulds are naturally found in the air, soil, on insects and plants and grow on crops and grains and produce aflatoxins to contaminate these crops.
Generally, Aflatoxin contamination can occur at both pre-and post-harvest stages of food production, but according to an Agronomist at CSIR – SARI, Wa Station, Dr. George Mahama, the post-harvest stage is the most critical for Alfatoxin contamination.
A grain containing toxin-producing moulds can be difficult or impossible to recognize because it may not appear overtly mouldy.
Even when visibly mouldy, you cannot see aflatoxins in the grain with your naked eye. Techniques to detect and quantify aflatoxins are available through diagnostic laboratories.
There are well established laboratories at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi and the University for Development Studies at Nyankpala to test for alfatoxin contamination levels.
Research on Aflatoxins in Upper West Region
To really understand the effects of Aflatoxins and their effects, Dr. George Mahama led a team of researchers to undertake the Peanut Mycotoxin Innovation Lab (PMIL) project.
This was a 3-year research conducted by CSIR – SARI with funding from the US government through USAID.
According to Dr. Mahama, during the research, it came out that maize and groundnuts are the easiest targets for the Aflatoxin moulds.
In the case of groundnuts, bad post-harvest practices make it easy for contamination, Again, in areas where there are insect-pests like white crabs and termites, they perforate the pods making the susceptible to Aflatoxin moulds in the soils.
For Dr. Mahama, “some management practices like keeping your fields clean and uninfected, timely weeding and applying the necessary nutrients to the soil” would go a long way to prevent contamination.
For post-harvest management practices, the team found out that nuts that were dried on the bare ground were contaminated easily.
Farmers were advised to dry their grains and nuts on raised platforms and stored in well ventilated rooms. Again, critical to reducing Aflatoxin levels in grains and nuts are keeping low moisture content. For groundnuts, 8% moisture content is optimum while between 10 and 13% for maize is advised.
Effects of Aflatoxin
In poultry, the ingestion of Aflatoxin contamination feed leads to a reduction in the size of eggs while in livestock it leads to a reduction in productivity, weight loss and death.
In humans, according to Ghana Standards Authority, Aflatoxins causes liver necrosis, liver tumors, reduced growth, depressed immune response and carcinogenesis. When exposed to very high levels of aflatoxins it can be fatal.
It is also responsible for childhood stunting with some linkage to kwashiorkor. It is estimated that around 30% of all liver cancers worldwide could be related to aflatoxins exposure.
Addressing Aflatoxin Levels In Food Produce; Biological Control (Aflasave)
The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria produced the Aflasave as a means to reduce Alfatoxin levels at the pre-harvest and post-harvest stage by between 88-99 percent in groundnuts and maize.
According to Dr. George Mahama, the Aflasave contains a similar fungus that causes Aflatoxins, albeit the fungus found in the Aflasave is not poisonous.
He said when seeds are coated with Aflasave before planting, it spreads and covers the plants and pods (not visible to the naked eye) thereby rendering the Aflatoxin causing fungi redundant when they form on the plant and pods.
Currently, the Market Oriented Agriculture Program (MOAP) in the Upper West Region is encouraging farmers to use Aflasave on the crops before planting.
Government Intervention (The National Aflatoxin Sensitization and Management Project and others)
As part of efforts to address Aflatoxin Mycotoxins in food produce, government through the Ghana Standards Authority (GSA) introduced the National Aflatoxin Sensitization and Management.
The project is aimed at catalyzing and sustaining an inclusive agricultural transformation by improving food safety and security through increased knowledge about Aflatoxin in respect of its impacts and management.
The GSA is doing this in conjunction with the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
Private Sector Intervention – SNV and GTLC Partnership
The Netherlands Development Organisation, SNV is giving a leg-up to the Ghana Trade and Livelihood Coalition (GTLC) in respect of post harvest loss (PHL) under its Voice for Change Partnership (V4C) programme.
As a step further, GTLC has constituted the Upper West Regional Post Harvest Management Platform – (UWERPHMAP).
The platform seeks to contribute to reduce post-harvest loss- both quantitative and qualitative loss, in general, and on some specific cases like helping reduce Aflatoxin in maize and groundnuts.
The platform would embark on sensitization of small scale farmers on the dangers and effects of Aflatoxin on their farm business.
Apart from using various channels of communication in the campaign, farmer groups would also be used to promote peer learning among themselves.
A Policy Officer with the Ghana Trade and Livelihood Coalition (GTLC), Emmanuel Wullingdool, pointed out that the platform would also promote good agricultural practices and encourage the use of post-harvest management technologies.
The Country Program Coordinator of SNV, Eric Banye, was excited that SNV is reaching out to a number of CSOs and NGOs to generate evidence to inform policy formation as well as policy implementation.
He was equally happy that a group of people from different backgrounds but with mutual interest had come together to address PHL.
Mr. Banye observed that “for every local problem, there must be a local solution.”
Aflatoxin contamination remains one of the key problems of small scale farmers in Ghana and even the entire West African Sub-region.
It is commendable that government of Ghana has taken steps to ensure that farmers understand the need to practice good pre and post-harvest management practices to prevent Aflatoxin contamination.
The involvement of private sector in managing Aflatoxins is also highly commendable. Reduced Aflatoxin levels would surely enhance economic status of small scale farmers .
Story by Mark Smith