Aflatoxins are a naturally occurring fungal toxins produced by the fungus Aspergillus flavus and are found in cereal grains, chilies, dry fruits and nuts. They are associated with health problems in livestock; in humans, they can cause stunting in children and cancer of the liver. Aflatoxin concentrations in harvested Pakistan grain often exceed the level permitted in countries where aflatoxin in food and feed is regulated.
Pakistan historically has had limited public awareness of the harmful effects of aflatoxin contamination. Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the USAID Safer Food through Aflatoxin Control began work on the issue with Ingredion an American company processing 80 percent of the maize grown in Pakistan. The company had found contamination levels frequently above the international standard of 20 parts per billion, according to the World Health Organization.
International scientific collaboration reaps dividends
How did a solution emerge to this problem? The short answer was close collaboration across geographic, institutional and public and private sectors.
In 2016, Ingredion’s Dr. Pushpak Mehta, a corn breeder, approached his former professor from Texas A&M University, Dr. Richard Frederiksen, a maize specialist. Frederiksen then directed him to Dr. Ranajit Bandyopadhyay, a professor then on sabbatical with Frederiksen (and head of an Africa-wide effort to develop an aflatoxin biocontrol mitigation technology, Aflasafe, for the Nigeria-based International Institute of Tropical Agriculture).
Bandyopadhyay introduced Mehta to his collaborator, Dr. Peter Cotty, a plant pathologist and leading scientist at USDA. Cotty had developed the groundbreaking biocontrol technology that would prove critical to helping Pakistan overcome its aflatoxin contamination.
Cotty and Mehta wasted no time and formed a partnership to identify a suitable biocontrol indigenous to Pakistan. USDA’s Pakistan Agriculture Program, a decade-long, USAID-funded program, also joined the effort, with Ingredion, to bring the technology to bear on the problem. USDA and Rafhan Maize (owned by Ingredion) began the crop sampling and laboratory research needed to identify the atoxigenic fungal strains of A. flavus native to Pakistan.
It was through these efforts that the formulated project, AflaPak, was born. AflaPak is a biological control agent/product for displacing the strains of aflatoxin producing A. flavus. The active ingredient in AflaPak is a naturally occurring, nontoxigenic strain of A. flavus.
AflaPak takes off
The exceptional international collaboration that took place, and a decade of agricultural accomplishments across Pakistan, were documented in a three-part webinar held earlier this year. In the series of videos, experts shared how AflaPak came to fruition and how they are now registering the innovation with the government.
In the webinar, Mehta discussed Ingredion’s 2015 pledge to sustainably source 100 percent of multiple crops, including corn, which led to its 2016 investment in biocontrol technology in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Expansion of AflaPak trials
According to the Crop Disease Research Institute in Pakistan, the first field trial of AflaPak on 1,400 acres in 2019 demonstrated that aflatoxins could be reduced by 80 percent — a significant accomplishment. The Ingredion team expanded AflaPak trials in 2021 to 20,000 acres. This provided further credence to the technology’s effectiveness while encouraging its adoption in other southeast Asian countries and globally.
Dr. Hillary Mehl, a plant pathologist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Aflatoxin Laboratory, works closely with governments and research organizations to expand the use of atoxigenic strains of Aspergillus flavus. USDA efforts here began in 2017 when her lab was provided with samples for genetic characterization and identified indigenous atoxigenic strains of Aspergillus flavus that have optimal biocontrol characteristics for Pakistan. Once a strain was selected for trial, Mehl and her partners trained laboratory personnel on appropriate methods for conducting field trials and analyzing maize samples.
“Pakistan can adapt and adopt a technology that has been proven effective and addresses a major health and economic problem,” Mehl said.
USDA, USAID, Rafhan Maize, and other partners are now beginning a new phase of the aflatoxin control work by testing AflaPak’s efficacy on chilies. If AflaPak proves effective on another crop such as chili, it could save Pakistan years of research and development. Ingredion is committed to making AflaPak available for other crops, starting with chili. At the same time, USDA and its partners are continuing to build lab capacity and skills so that Pakistan will have the tools to develop aflatoxin biocontrols for other crops. Bangladesh is also interested in testing AflaPak on its crops, as was Afghanistan.