Kitty Cardwell, the national program leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and member of the PMIL external review committee, was recently featured in a National Geographic article, “Aflatoxin, a Silent Threat to Africa’s Food Supply.”

Food supply issues aren’t uncommon in Africa. Famines caused by drought, flood, or conflict are frequent. But there is another constant threat to the continent’s food security that receives little public attention: Foodborne toxins known as aflatoxins.

Produced by fungus in the same way that penicillin is, aflatoxins can cause disease and are blamed for liver cancer. That’s pretty alarming since they largely affect food staples like corn and groundnuts. But there are scientists working on solutions.

The toxins are naturally occurring and exist at high levels in much of Africa’s food supply. Some scientists  estimate that up to one-third of Africa’s food supply is infected with aflatoxins at levels higher than the United States deems safe. The Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA) is working to assess the extent of the infection.

Aflatoxins likely affect more people in Africa than common diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. But because aflatoxins’ effects are so diverse and incremental, it’s not always easy to finger them as the cause of illness. Its symptoms include hemorrhaging, fluid retention, cirrhosis, and failure of the liver. And they are blamed for hundreds of deaths worldwide each year.

“It’s pretty scary because you can’t smell or taste the toxin,” says Barbara Stinson, the project director of PACA and senior partner at the Meridian Institute, which helps companies and governments develop problem-solving strategies. And you can’t rely on sight, either. “The fuzzy, green fungus alone isn’t a dead giveaway that the toxin is present.”


Read the rest of the rest of the article here.