Food safety is both an economic and social issue, affecting people from farm to fork. As an example, aflatoxins are highly toxic, cancer-causing poisons that contaminate food and animal feed and can make their way to consumers in eggs, meat, peanuts or rice. These toxins are produced by the fungus Aspergillus flavus and are found naturally in soil and crops throughout the globe. Staple commodities are particularly prone to contamination, which can cause major impacts on food safety, public health, nutrition and trade. According to the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa, losses due to aflatoxins, with their impact on export-oriented value chains, account for up to 1.2 percent of the national GDP of African countries. Toxic aflatoxin residues have been found in over 95 percent of young African children and negative health effects — stunted growth, nutrient deficiencies and others — continue to increase in both prevalence and severity. To boost the world’s nutrition and ability to trade, countries must take an active approach to mitigate aflatoxin.
After more than a decade of rigorous laboratory and field testing, the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has developed a biological control agent to mitigate aflatoxins. ARS Research Plant Pathologists discovered that native, non-toxigenic strains of Aspergillus flavus can be applied to a field and outcompete or competitively exclude the toxic strains present. This biological control agent greatly reduces the toxins in the environment and ensures that the farmland and crop harvest are free of or contain significantly reduced levels of aflatoxin. When combined with the adoption of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), and other key interventions, such as those listed in the chart below, farmers can prevent the occurrence of major food safety issues.
In the United States, this biocontrol technology is registered as AF-36 by the Arizona Cotton Research and Protection Council and as Afla-Guard by Syngenta. Aflasafe, which employs the same approach and is a trademarked product of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), has been proven in African field trials to reduce the level of aflatoxins in the soil before crops are harvested and then keeps working in the drying and post-harvest stages by maintaining those reduced levels. Lacking Aflasafe application, aflatoxins present in harvested crops can easily multiply and increase in poor storage conditions. The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service and IITA partnered to bring the technology to Africa. Aflasafe is currently registered in Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Kenya, Senegal and Nigeria. Taking science to scale, the IITA is partnering with the private sector, with the aim to cover 500,000 hectares with Aflasafe in the next few years.
In addition, USDA experts are exploring channels to share this biocontrol with Latin America and Pakistan. For more information on Aflasafe, please visit https://aflasafe.com/ and stay tuned for future posts!
Elisa Loeser is an international program specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture where she leads the USDA-USAID aflatoxin capacity building programs. Lee Gross is an international program specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he leads the USDA-USAID Food Safety Network capacity building programs.