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Determinants of aflatoxin contamination in maize in East Africa:

Mycotoxins are toxic compounds produced by fungi.  They contaminate an estimated 25% of the world’s food supply, and are particularly problematic in developing countries where few safeguards exist to prevent their entry into the food system.  Although the acute effects of many mycotoxins are known, the effects of chronic mycotoxin consumption are only now beginning to be understood.  Chronic exposure to aflatoxin—one of the most potent mycotoxins—has recently been recognized as a cause of immuno-suppression and growth stunting.  Thus, aflatoxin exposure has significant implications for the health and well-being of tens of millions of people throughout the tropics, particularly those whose staple foods are maize or peanuts which are particularly susceptible to aflatoxin contamination.  This project brings together researchers from agricultural and social sciences to examine aflatoxins in maize in East Africa as a model for the impact and reduction of mycotoxins more generally.  Our ultimate objective is to identify the most effective and feasible interventions to reduce aflatoxin exposure for high-risk populations, with an initial emphasis on low-resource maize-growing farm households.  We are developing a holistic, systems-oriented conceptual framework for assessment of intervention strategies to reduce aflatoxin exposure.  We intend for this effort to encourage interactions among researchers who focus on different dimensions of the aflatoxin problem, allow identification of knowledge gaps and initial assessment of the cost-effectiveness of intervention strategies.  We are conducting a pilot project in which we are beginning to quantify the agronomic, environmental and behavioral factors to determine the relative impact of each on aflatoxin accumulation in maize.  The expected outputs will be a holistic assessment of research needs and intervention strategies to reduce aflatoxin exposure, quantitative tools to predict more accurately the degree of aflatoxin contamination in maize, and increased understanding of the crucial role of human risk perceptions and constraints on behavior to mitigate aflatoxin exposure.

This project was initiated in January 2009 with funding provided by the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future (CCSF) Academic Venture Fund. The collaborative team includes: Michael Milgroom (Plant Pathology & Plant-Microbe Biology), Rebecca Nelson (Plant Pathology & Plant-Microbe Biology, Plant Breeding and Genetics), Chuck Nicholson (Applied Economics and Management) at Cornell, and Vivian Hoffmann (Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Maryland).

corn kernal infected with Aspergillus flavus

Maize kernal infected with Aspergillus flavus, which produced aflatoxin. (Photo by Kent Loeffler and Santiago Mideros)