Initiative tackles killer aflatoxin

IITA and partners recently launched a project that will provide farmers in Nigeria and Kenya with a natural, safe, and cost-effective solution to prevent the contamination of maize and groundnut by a cancer-causing poison, aflatoxin. It is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Maize cobs attacked by fungi. Photo by IITA.
Maize cobs attacked by fungi. Photo by IITA.

Aflatoxin is produced by a fungus (Aspergillus flavus). It damages human health and is a barrier to trade and economic growth. The toxin, however, is not produced in all strains of the fungus. The project’s biocontrol technology introduces nontoxic strains of the fungus in the affected fields. These “good guys” overpower and reduce the “bad guys,” the population of toxic strains, drastically reducing the rate of contamination.

During the launching of the project, Wilson Songa, Agricultural Secretary in Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture, said that Kenya welcomed the initiative after recent losses of lives and millions of tons of maize to aflatoxin contamination.

“Kenya has become a hotspot of aflatoxin contamination. Since 2004, nearly 150 people have died after eating contaminated maize,” he said.

IITA had worked with the United States Department of Agriculture to develop a biocontrol solution for aflatoxin, testing it in many fields in Nigeria. The project will take the biocontrol product, commercialize it, and make it available to farmers.

Ranajit Bandyopadhyay, IITA’s plant pathologist, says the project is adding value to previous investments in biocontrol. It will support the final stage of commercialization of aflasafe™ in Nigeria and selection of the most effective strains, development of a biocontrol product, and gathering of data on efficacy in Kenya.

The Nigerian government has joined forces with IITA and the World Bank to help contain the contamination of food crops by aflatoxins.

The collaboration will make aflasafeâ„¢ available to farmers to greatly reduce the aflatoxin menace.

The new approach is part of the Commercial Agriculture Development Program supported by the World Bank and implemented in Kano, Kaduna, Enugu, Cross River, and Lagos States in Nigeria.

In Nigeria, produce from resource-poor maize farmers faces rejection from the premium food market because of aflatoxin contamination.

In on-farm research trials in Kaduna State—north-central Nigeria—during 2009 and 2010, farmers who treated their fields with aflasafe™ were able to reduce the levels of contamination by 80 to 90%.

Related website

Aflatoxin management website – www.aflasafe.com

aflasafeâ„¢: a winning formula

Biological control of aflatoxins using aflasafeâ„¢ is providing hope for African farmers battling with crop contamination and opening doors for the private sector looking to invest on a winning formula in the agricultural sector.

Scientists have developed a cost-effective, safe, and natural method to prevent aflatoxin formation in maize while in the field. Aflatoxin causes liver cancer and suppresses the immune system, endangering both humans and animals. It also retards growth and development of children. This colorless chemical is invisible and its presence and contamination levels can only be confirmed by laboratory tests.

The biocontrol technology works by introducing native (local) strains of the fungus Aspergillus flavus that do not produce the aflatoxin (the ‘good guys’) in the affected fields. This good fungus boxes out and drastically reduces the population of the poison-producing strains (the ‘bad guys’).

The aflasafeâ„¢ technology has the potential to provide relief to millions of maize farmers in sub-Saharan Africa depending on agriculture as a source of livelihood.

According to Ranajit Bandyopadhyay, IITA Plant Pathologist, a single application of this biopesticide 2-3 weeks before maize flowering is sufficient to prevent aflatoxin contamination throughout and beyond a cropping season and even when the grains are in storage.

With an initial investment outlay of US$1−3 million in an aflasafe™ manufacturing plant, investors are likely to reap about $1.33 million annually. Bandyopadhyay said that investing in an aflasafe™ manufacturing plant in Nigeria would pay off considering the huge demand for quality maize in the country. His estimates showed that over 60% of harvested maize in Nigeria currently has high levels of aflatoxins and are prone to being rejected by the feed industry.

Institutions involved in the initiative include IITA, Agriculture Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture, AATF, and local partners.

Related website

Aflatoxin management website – www.aflasafe.com

Ranajit Bandyopadhyay: Ending aflatoxin contamination in Africa

Developing countries lose billions of dollars in trade annually to aflatoxin contamination in foods. Worst still, the contamination endangers the health of millions of people in the region. But the good news is that IITA has developed a biocontrol product (aflasafe) to tackle this problem. Ranajit Bandyophadhay speaks to Godwin Atser on the journey that led to the development of aflasafe and other issues.

Ranajit (left) explains to partners how aflasafe works
Ranajit (left) explains to partners how aflasafe works

Tell us about your work at IITA
I am a plant pathologist, and one of my main responsibilities is how to manage plant disease. The other is to ensure food safety.

What about your work on biocontrol?
This is one the most exciting projects that I have ever had. The work on biocontrol is on a toxin found on maize and peanuts called aflatoxins. The toxin causes a lot of harm to people’s health and also makes farmers sell their products at lower prices. So, the losses are both in terms of health and trade. What I am trying to do is to manage the aflatoxins using a holistic approach, such as using resistant varieties, better crop management practices, and also the biological control method.

What is unique about your biocontrol work?
One thing that is unique is that we are using the natural resources from Nigeria to manage an economic and medical problem. We are making use of nontoxic fungi to eliminate the harmful fungi (aflatoxins).

Why are aflatoxins important?
Aflatoxins are harmful chemicals that are produced by a fungus called Aspergillus flavus.

The fungi produce toxins in maize, peanuts, and generally grains. When people eat them, it harms them and causes diseases such as liver cancer and kwashiorkor, among others. Worst still, farmers cannot sell their products at the premium price.

What makes you keen about biocontrol?
It is one of the strongest components of the holistic approach. If we can have the biocontrol approach adopted by farmers, most of the problems concerning aflatoxins which they face during postharvest will be greatly reduced.

Do you see IITA in the position to offer the biocontrol option to farmers?
Absolutely yes. The reason is that we actually started with good science and that science has given birth to a new product which the farmers are willing to use.

Happy farmer with aflasafe
Happy farmer with aflasafe

Tell us about this product
The product is “aflasafe”. We coined the name aflasafe; when farmers use the product on their farms, they would produce grains that are free from aflatoxins.

Did you face any challenge in developing the product?
The first challenge was developing the product itself. The fresh challenge now is how to get a large manufacturing firm to begin massive production, advocacy, and awareness so that it gets to the farmers.

Any interest so far?
We made a presentation to the Minister of Health, Prof. Babatunde Osotimehin, and he was so excited about the product. We also did a field deployment and the farmers were also very happy about it.

Who were your partners in this work?
Many organizations and people were involved in this work. They include the AATF, National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, farmers, United States Department of Agriculture, US Agency for International Development, Prof Peter Cotty, Dr Joseph Atehnkeng, and several others.

How were you able to handle these partners?
Every partner is a unique entity but one thing important is to build trust. Once that is done, the partnership gets smooth.

Research wise, what are you future plans?
My future plan is to get this product used on at least one million hectares. I intend to put all my efforts to see that this product is used for the benefit of the farmers in general and women and children who are more vulnerable to aflatoxins.

Related website

Aflatoxin management website – www.aflasafe.com