Aflatoxin poses huge risk to food security

Women and children sort out maize products at the revived Moruese irrigation scheme in Turkana county. The scheme is providing food to over 6,000 families. 19.02.2019. [Peter Ochieng, Standard]

Farmers in Tana River County are among the local producers who have lost billions of shillings after their crop was infected with aflatoxin.

Virtually, all the maize harvested from the Hola Agricultural Irrigation Scheme in 2013 was declared unfit for human consumption by the World Food Programme (WFP) for containing the substance known to cause cancer.

WFP is the main buyer of the scheme’s produce. About 60,000 bags of maize were harvested that year in the scheme, each with a market price of Sh2,500.

This saw farmers lose close to Sh150 million. The harvest is said to have contained over 10 parts per billion of the poisonous substance instead of Kenya’s recommended level of 10 parts per billion, said James Kirimi, a senior Hola Agricultural Irrigation Scheme official.

In 2010, about 2.3 million bags of maize was declared unfit for human and livestock consumption and trade, reducing the reserve of the staple cereal even as some farmers lost their livelihoods. In 2014, 14,500 tonnes of maize were found to be unfit for consumption as they were infected with aflatoxin.

“It is very disheartening to farmers when their bumper harvests are declared unfit for human consumption,” said Director General of Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) Eliud Kiplimo.
Infection of maize by aflatoxin is one of the causes of post-harvest losses in the country. Although crops, especially maize, are infected by aflatoxin at the flowering stage, poor post-harvest practices such as transport and storage have also been blamed for contamination.

Dr Charity Mutegi, a food scientist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) spearheading the development of a new product for containing anti-aflatoxin known as Alfasafe, said the fungi affect food security in the country.

Kenya is one of the hotspots of aflatoxin, especially in dry areas. This means that as the country moves to the next level of turning the dry lands into farms, tackling aflatoxin will have to be given priority.

“About two per cent of the maize produced in the country is infected with aflatoxin. That is a loss of revenue for farmers and country,” said Dr Mutegi. Besides maize, aflatoxin affects wheat, barley, peanuts, and sorghum.

She sought to dispel the notion that there is a correlation between discoloured maize and contamination with aflatoxin, noting that the substance is colourless, odourless and tasteless.

Mutegi insisted that the only way to find out if maize is infected with aflatoxin is by testing it.

As part of one of its Big Four Agenda on food security, the Government aims to reduce post-harvest losses from 20 per cent to 15 per cent by availing post-harvest technologies.

The State also plans to waive duty on cereal drying equipment, hematic bags, grain cocoons or silos. However, Kalro and IITA partnered to construct a factory that would be used to produce Alfa-safe.

Dr Kiplimo urged both national and county governments to come up with a policy that will encourage farmers to use Alfasafe just as they use fertiliser.

Fewer parts

Recent reports showed that peanut butter had excess aflatoxin, 24 parts per billion instead of the recommended 10 or fewer parts per billion.

To stem such cases, experts advise farmers to start containing the poison when growing the plant. When storing them, they should keep it away from moisture.

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