Aflatoxin Control: How poor handling of grains and agricultural products causes cancer and other health-related complications

Aflatoxin Control: How poor handling of grains and agricultural products causes cancer and other health-related complications

According to the World Health Organisation, cancer is the second leading cause of death globally, and was responsible for 8.8 million deaths in 2015.

The same disease causes one in six deaths globally with approximately 70% of these deaths occurring in low and middle-income countries, a bracket where Uganda falls.

Uganda is stepping countrywide campaigns against aflatoxins which are a major cause of health-related complications like cancer.

The campaign which will be led by the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries will be aimed at fighting the continued damage caused by the “little-known” killer toxins which are brought about by avoidable agricultural practices.

Defining Aflatoxins

Aflatoxins are poisons or highly toxic substances (secondary metabolites) produced by moulds or fungus, Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus.

These moulds or fungus can easily grow on grains once the grain is not properly stored under required conditions of temperature and moisture, as this release explains.

Moulds come from soils and air and can’t be seen with naked eye unless tested by qualified personnel using specialized gadgets like microscopes or chemicals.

The known dangers of aflatoxins

Aflatoxins can cause cancer, reduced growth among children (stuntedness), liver damage, reduced growth in animals (Cattle, Poultry/Chicken, fish) and death at high levels of contamination if not prevented.

There are four types of Aflatoxins that are of public health importance and agriculture i.e.  Aflatoxin B1, B2, G1 and G2.  However, Aflatoxin B1 is the most common and toxic of the four types.

Among these, Aflatoxin B1 is recognized by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of the most toxic and carcinogenic substances found in nature.

The biggest and best known health effect of aflatoxin is liver cancer.

As high as up to 28.2% of the annual global liver cancer cases are attributable to aflatoxin exposure and 40% of these cases occur in Africa, making liver cancer the top cause of cancer mortality in the continent.

Consumption of foods containing low levels of Aflatoxin for a long period can cause immune suppression, low birth weight, impaired child growth and liver cancer.

In addition, consumption of foods with moderate to high levels of Aflatoxins can lead to acute liver damage, Oedema (swelling), digestive disorders and death.

How aflatoxins are produced

Aflatoxins are mainly caused by fungus (moulds) Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus.

These moulds contaminate foodstuffs and feeds such as Maize, Groundnuts and Soybeans, particularly in the tropical and sub-tropical regions, including Uganda.

Types of food that are prone to Aflatoxin Contamination

Aflatoxin contamination is common in food crops including; Maize, groundnut and sorghum is high and widespread in Uganda.

Up to 65% of Maize in Uganda is usually contaminated with Aflatoxins with levels exceeding the Ugandan maximum limit (ML) of 10ppb for total Aflatoxins.

This high level of aflatoxins in staple foods including Maize, make it unsafe for Human and livestock Consumption.

How aflatoxins affect agribusiness and trade

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that 25% of the food produced worldwide is contaminated with Aflatoxins.

Due to the increasing recognition of the impact of aflatoxins on human health, food regulatory authorities have set and enforced limits for aflatoxins in traded foods.

Strict limits of 2ppb for aflatoxin B1 and 4ppb for total aflatoxins in foods are enforced in the European Union (EU) and up to limits of 10ppb East Africa.

The economic impact of aflatoxin-related diseases in Uganda

In Uganda, aflatoxin related illnesses are estimated to cost the government an additional US$ 910,000 expenditures on health services, annually.

Also, aflatoxin related diseases raise demand for medical supplies and technical personnel at government funded health centers, thus generating a fiscal impact.

As labor efficiency falls due to aflatoxin related illnesses, the time sufferers (victims) spend seeking medical attention and the time spent by family members attending to the sick, more labor is required to maintain the same level of economic output in the productive sectors.

This results in higher demand for labor which increases real wages, thus yielding higher employment, which translates to an increase of about US$ 13 million in expenditure on labor in the following or subsequent year.

How aflatoxins affect international trade

When aflatoxin contaminated foods are rejected from the international market, Uganda’s export sector deteriorates.

The findings of the country-led situation analysis and action planning (C-SAAP) showed that the total annual export loss due to aflatoxins is close to an estimated US$ 38 million.

Prevention of aflatoxins

Farmers and all value chain actors should ensure Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) such as timely planting, timely weeding, adequate pests and disease control, proper harvest and post -harvest handling practices along the value chains to ensure quality.

Avoid drying grains on a bare ground as this will contaminate the grains with soil/dirt and further allowing fungal/moulds growth.

Dry grains on a clean concrete slab, or use Plastic sheets or tarpaulins when drying maize.

Dry grains to a required moisture content between 12- 14% for better storage.

Store grains in air -tight Hermetic bags, Metallic or Plastic Silos to avoid insect damage.

Keep the grains dry, clean and free from insect damages during storage; this will help keep the grains up to 2 years without any significant reduction in quantity and quality.

Always, contact the nearest Sub-county or District Agricultural Office for Advice and more information.

More work in the campaign against aflatoxins will be done through the Aflatoxin Control Desk in the Directorate of Crop Resources, working closely with the African Union Commission Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (AUC-PACA).

Notes to editors

Below are additional details for editors.

About the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF)

The Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries is a Ministry in the Government of Uganda charged with creating an enabling environment in the Agricultural Sector.

The Ministry formulates, reviews and implement national policies, plans, strategies, regulations and standards and enforce laws, regulations and standards along the value chain of crops, livestock and fisheries.

Vision: A competitive, profitable and sustainable agricultural sector.

Mission: To transform subsistence farming to commercial agriculture.

See strategic objectives here.

See Agriculture Sector Strategic Plan here.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF) is made up of four Directorates including the Directorate of Crop Resources, Directorate of Animal Resources, Directorate of Agricultural Extension Services and the Directorate of Fisheries Resources each with Departments, Divisions and Partnership Projects.

The Departments of the Ministry which do not fall directly in the above include the Department of Agricultural Planning and Development, the Human Resource Department, the Department of Finance and Administration and the Department of Agricultural Infrastructure, Mechanisation and Water for Agricultural Production.

The Ministry is also made up of seven Agencies including the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS), Cotton Development Organisation (CDO), Dairy Development Authority (DDA), Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) and Coordinating Office for the Control of Trypanosomiasis in Uganda (COCTU) and the National Animal Genetic Resources Centre and Databank (NAGRC&DB).