Aflasafe reduces exposure to cancer-causing toxins and promotes farmer access to premium markets

6 February 2020

International Year of Plant Health 2020“If someone eats this maize, which may contain high aflatoxin levels, they may die and their death may be attributed to something else,” Dr Alejandro Ortega-Beltran a Plant Pathologist with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) says as he scrolls through pictures of nasty looking maize. Nasty, because it is rotten and covered by mold. “No way, no one eats that! I protest!” He keenly looks at me and adds, “when I was collecting crop samples, a woman in Mali was going to prepare a meal from this to feed her children. They cook the grains that are not too moldy—which may be highly contaminated—and give the rest to chicken and livestock…” A cold chill runs through my body causing me to mouth an unbelievable, “Really?!”

“Yes, really…” Alejandro emphasizes and then explains what aflatoxin and Aflasafe are. Aflatoxin is produced by fungi called Aspergillus. It is present in maize, groundnut, sorghum, chili, millet, ginger, cassava, among other crops grown in the tropics and subtropics. Aflatoxin causes liver cancer but has worse consequences in children. Medical research has shown that the first 1,000 days in a child’s life are critical for their development. So, when a child is fed on aflatoxin-contaminated food—and/or when exposed while in the womb— it may lead to stunting, wasting, poor mental development, and when the levels are too high, death can occur.

Aflasafe can reduce exposure to cancer-causing toxins and promote farmer access to premium markets
Aflatoxin infected maize

How aflatoxins cause liver cancer

When one eats aflatoxin-contaminated food, the liver tries to cleanse the toxin, but if one continuously eats contaminated food, the liver is burdened and over time it develops diseases such as cancer. The World Health Organization recommends the maximum level of aflatoxin in food to be no more than 10 parts per billion (ppb) but in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, food especially maize and groundnut may have 40,000 ppb.

In April 2004, 125 people in Kenya died due to exposure to high aflatoxin levels. A study that was carried out showed that aflatoxin-contaminated homegrown maize was the source of the outbreak. Fifty-five percent of the examined maize had aflatoxin levels greater than the Kenyan regulatory limit of 20 ppb, 35% had levels higher than 100 ppb, and 7% had levels high than 1,000 ppb, some reaching over 40,000 ppb. “Even a bull, huge as it is, would drop dead from aflatoxin levels of 40,000 ppb. It’s like lacing food with poison and giving it to people,” Dr Ranajit Bandyopadhyay, a Principal Plant Pathologist with IITA explains.

Other than affecting people’s health, aflatoxin causes sub-Saharan Africa to lose millions of dollars in exports due to the high contamination levels in grains, which are rejected by the EU and other trading partners.

Armed with this knowledge of how the fungi contaminates crops, and its effects on human health and trade, IITA developed a biocontrol solution—Aflasafe. According to Ranajit, “Aflasafe is sorghum that is coated with beneficial strains of Aspergillus flavus. Aspergillus flavus is the major aflatoxin-producing fungus. However, not all strains of A. flavus produce aflatoxins. It is these non toxin-producing strains (also known as atoxigenic) that are the active ingredient in IITA’s Aflasafe.

What is Aflasafe?

Aflasafe is a granular formulation made from sorgum that is dyed blue to differentiate it from regular sorghum. When a farmer spreads Aflasafe in their field before the plant flowers, the beneficial strains reproduce, and outcompete fungi residing in the treated field and prevent them from multiplying, and contaminating the crop. Crops will always be exposed to aflatoxin because aflatoxin-producing fungi are found everywhere especially in the soil. Aflatoxin is not an Africa-specific problem, the fungi that causes it are found across all tropical and sub-tropical areas of all continents. In USA, where the biocontrol technology was developed, aflatoxin biocontrol products are approved for use in cotton, maize, pistachio, groundnut, almond and figs.

When a farmer treats their field with Aflasafe, at the right time and the right dose (10 kg/ha), as well as  follows good agricultural practices, the crop at harvest will have 80% to 100% less aflatoxins. In Africa, IITA has spearheaded the adapation and improvement of the aflasafe technology. It is now being commercialized and adopted by farmers, agribusinesses, and governments across several African nations. In 2013, Aflasafe was registered for commercial use in Nigeria, which is currently the largest adopter with close to 100,000 farmers using it.

In addition, farmers in Nigeria under the recently-concluded AgResults Nigeria Aflasafe™ Pilot Project used Aflasafe and employed good agricultural, harvest, and postharvest practives. All this combined resulted in increased  productivity from the national average of 1.5 ton/ha to 3.1 ton/ha. Increased productivity, and higher crop quality (i.e., low aflatoxin content) has allowed farmers to  increase their incomes by 16%.