Farmers in Zambia are in high spirits as IITA and partners develop and distribute the first-ever batch of aflasafe™ that is tailor-made for the country, giving hope of crops that are safe from deadly aflatoxins.
In mid-January, maize farmers in the Eastern Province of Zambia received more than one ton of aflasafe™ that is now being applied in their fields. This marks the first official field application of the biocontrol product in the country and comes only a year after researchers from IITA, the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI), and the National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research (NSIR) began work to identify the best safe – or atoxigenic – strains of the Aspergillus flavus fungi.
Toxigenic – or poison-forming – strains of the A. flavus fungus are what causes aflatoxins in crops; however, its atoxigenic cousins could also be used to counter them. This is the basic principle of an innovative biocontrol solution developed and commercialized by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) widely used in southern USA to combat aflatoxin contamination in maize, cotton, and groundnut.
Safe strains of the fungus are inoculated onto sterile sorghum grains and applied in the field to out-compete their aflatoxin-producing cousins. The product is called aflasafe™.
After a year of careful study at IITA in Nigeria and the USDA-ARS in the US, eight unique and naturally-occurring atoxigenic strains were identified from over 3000 Zambian fungi. These strains do not possess the genetic machinery to produce aflatoxins, are unrelated to aflatoxin-producing fungi, and are highly competitive. These strains were then used to develop aflasafe™ deployed in Zambia.
Belita Kayumba, the first Zambian farmer to receive and apply aflasafe™, said, “We know that some of the crops we produce are not safe to eat, but what can I do when my children say that they are very hungry? We just take our chances.”
"But now with aflasafe™ here in my field I am sure that my children will finally be safe and healthy!” she said excitedly.
Dr Thomas Dubois, IITA scientist who led the research to develop aflasafe™ for Zambia, said, “In a couple of months, after harvest, she and other farmers like her will know how good aflasafeTM is in reducing aflatoxins in their crops and in their food.”
"The use of aflasafe™ reduces aflatoxins during crop development, in postharvest storage, and throughout the value chain. Based on our experience in West Africa, we estimate that aflatoxin levels in fields treated with aflasafe™ will be reduced by 80 to 90 percent,” he added.
Maize and groundnuts—two of Zambia’s most important cash and food security crops—are prone to aflatoxin contamination. This is a major concern as it negatively affects the health of humans and domesticated animals, causing stunting in children and cancer. Aflatoxin contamination also hampers international trade and economic growth as it prevents affected export commodities from meeting stringent trade and food safety standards.
Worse still is that rejected contaminated produce are not usually destroyed, finding their way into the domestic food chain and wreaking havoc on local consumers.