Nature is fighting for us: Combating Aflatoxins

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Sorghum plant in Gezira region, Sudan. I took the picture after an on-farm training on aflatoxin. There is little awareness by farmers and their families on food safety risks. Later and after analysis of the samples collected, Gezira area had the highest level of Aflatoxin compared to other regions.

Solara Elsheikh is a project manager at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Sudan. Her work focuses on implementing research projects, deploying science-based solutions and building capacity of local actors. Solara participated in the 2024 food systems e-course, and she writes this blog to tell us how combating aflatoxins needs a food systems approach.

A faded memory from my school years in Sudan comes to mind. Each day, I passed by the typical street vendors selling after-school snacks like sesame candy, baobab cakes, and my all-time favourite, skillet-roasted peanuts. I would munch on these treats before getting into the bus, a daily ritual that continued until I graduated from university.

As I grew up and my career developed in food safety, I became more aware of food hazards. To my surprise, peanuts, my beloved snack, were linked to aflatoxin—an invisible threat and highly toxic at minute concentrations. Consuming foods prone to aflatoxin has led to many losing their lives to cancer, suffering from aflatoxicosis, or facing long-term health repercussions.

Nut snacks, peanut butter, and other groundnut confectionaries are especially susceptible to aflatoxins. The same goes for crop residues which are fed to farm animals. If these residues are contaminated with aflatoxin, they cause reduced productivity and increased mortality. Cows may produce milk containing aflatoxin, further impacting food quality. This is a health burden for our country, and it has economic impacts, especially through export bans. Aflatoxin contamination is linked to widespread fungi known as Aspergillus, which thrives in hot and humid environments. Unfortunately, the countries most affected by this are typically poor and lack the resources and infrastructure to implement effective food safety measurements.

To address this, my employer, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, in collaboration with the USDA-ARS and several other institutions, has developed a product known as Aflasafe. to combat aflatoxin contamination in several countries in Africa. Remarkably, this product is derived from our environment—specifically from Aspergillus itself. Aflasafe utilises non-toxin-producing strains of Aspergillus to outcompete their toxic counterparts, offering a promising solution to this pervasive issue. It is like nature is fighting for us.

In practice, Aflasafe significantly reduces aflatoxin contamination at the field level. However, integrating efforts across the value chain is crucial to prevent aflatoxins in other parts of the chain. This becomes challenging due to the involvement of multiple actors, highlighting the need for a food systems approach. Our program experiences have shown that involving more value chain actors in managing food safety risks ensures concerns like aflatoxin are kept at bay.

The major gain from the food systems e-course for me was solidifying the perspective of food safety through a global food systems approach. Food safety is intricately connected with various stakeholders such as supply chains, markets, healthcare systems, and macroeconomics. It needs to be studied both at a "big picture" level and through detailed interventions. This idea has inspired me to continue researching how a food systems approach can help us increase our impact in fighting aflatoxin and other food safety risks.


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Solara Elsheikh

e-course participant

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