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Initiative to fight killer aflatoxin in African crops launched
16 June 2011
International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA)
African agricultural research groups led by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and partners have launched a project seeking to provide farmers with a natural, safe, and cost-effective solution to prevent contamination of maize and peanut by a deadly cancer-causing poison, aflatoxin, in a bid to improve the health and income of families in Nigeria and Kenya. It is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Aflatoxin is produced by a fungus scientifically known as Aspergillus flavus. However, not all strains of the fungus produce the toxins. The project’s biocontrol technology introduces strains of the non-toxic fungus or ‘the good guys,’ in the affected fields which outcompete and reduce the population of the toxic ones, or ‘the bad guys’, drastically reducing contamination.
Wilson Songa, Agricultural Secretary in Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture who was also the guest of honour at the launch, welcomed the initiative saying Kenya needed it like yesterday following recent losses of lives and millions of tonnes of maize to aflatoxin contamination. He said that the Kenyan government would work closely with the team to ensure the project was a success and the technology gets to the affected farmers quickly.
“Kenya has become a hotspot of aflatoxin contamination. Since 2004, nearly 150 people died after eating contaminated maize. Last year we had 2.3 million bags of maize contaminated. Currently we have 60,000 90 kgs bags of infested maize not only taking up storage but are also a problem to dispose. It is a nightmare,” he said. “This launch should have been yesterday!”
Paula Bramel, IITA Deputy Director General, Research for Development, said that IITA had worked for many years to develop a biocontrol solution for aflatoxin and was pleased to be part of this exciting project which would see it reach the farmers.
“This project will take our biocontrol product, commercialize it, and make it available to farmers. We have worked on it for many years, tested it in many fields in Nigeria and we are pleased with its effectiveness,” she aid. “And we are optimistic it will help farmers.”
She thanked the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for their support, and Peter Cotty from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), for sharing on the experience in the US and his collaboration and commitment to the project.
Prem Warrior, a senior Program Officer from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said aflatoxin impacted negatively on human health and was a barrier to trade and economic growth.
“Today we have an opportunity to do something about it (aflatoxins). This project is a short term development strategy to test the technology and learn on product development issues. We have confidence in the technology but how we will commercialize it and who are our customers?” he said.
Acting Executive Director of African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF) Jacob Mignouna, noted that maize was an important staple food for 300 million people depending on the crop so its contamination was of great concern.
Director of Kenya Agricultural Research Organization (KARI) Ephraim Mukisira was happy to note the speed at which the discussions on aflatoxin were moving from the boardroom down to where the problem was.
Ranajit Bandyopadhyay, IITA plant pathologist, was also happy with the opportunity accorded by the project to tackle an old problem with many partners and support of BMGF. He said the project was adding value to previous investments in biocontrol.
“The project will support the final stage of commercialization of ‘Aflasafe’ in Nigeria and the selection of the most effective strains, development of a biocontrol product and gathering of efficacy data in Kenya.”