Researchers at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Namulonge are in the final stages of coming up with a remedy to deal with the problem of aflatoxins, which is increasingly becoming not only a health issue but also a threat to the economy.
Speaking during a Media BioCafe convened by the Science Foundation for Livelihoods & Development (SCIFODE), Dr. Godfrey Asea, the Director of NaCRRI said they have developed an aflasafe formulation, which they have named UG- 01 that farmers can broadcast in their farms to curb aflatoxin –causing fungus.
Uganda has on several occasions been on the spot for having food contaminated with toxins, which are thought to be contributing to a high number of people getting diagnosed with cancer of the liver. One such controversy was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic where free food supplied by the government to the vulnerable people tested positive for aflatoxins.
However, this is not the only blow that the country has faced as recently Ugandan food being exported to the neighboring countries has been blocked due to the same problem. In July for instance, sixty-five trucks carrying maize were blocked at the Uganda- South Sudan border at Elegu on the allegation that it contained aflatoxins of over 10bpp, a high measure of the abundance of b-propeller phytases (bpp) and therefore, unsuitable for human consumption.
Now, scientists say applying the new formulation on crops two to three weeks before flowering could help curb this contamination. According to researchers, UG-01 works in a way of producing good fungi that will out-compete the aflatoxigenic fungi limiting contamination as the crops grow. While it’s generally believed that contamination with aflatoxins happens within storage or post-harvest handling, Asea says studies have revealed that the most contamination happens when crops are still in the garden as the fungus is more resident in the soil.
Studies to confirm the efficacy of this UG-01 aflasafe were conducted in over 5000 fields across the country where they tested it in maize, groundnuts, and sorghum. Results show the formulation was found to reduce aflatoxin contamination in maize by 66.7% and 74.2% in sorghum.
Now, the scientist says they have finalized their data and are developing a commercialization strategy with hopes that the formulation will be registered by the regulators by the end of this year. So far, it’s not yet clear how much a farmer will need to buy a pack of aflasafe but Asea says discussions about this and the dosing are underway.
However, while this is a welcome innovation, scientists warn that this won’t be the silver –bullet to curbing aflatoxins in food. Dr Andrew Kiggundu, a consultant in Biotechnology says a number of approaches need to be used to reduce aflatoxin contamination right from the garden to storage and transportation.
One of the ways for reduction suggested include timely harvest of crops and proper drying of harvests whereby for maize for instance, moisture should be less than 13%, and that there should be continuous awareness about tips that farmers can easily use. Scientists however expressed concern that the highest level of control efforts are put at the level of export ignoring food that is consumed locally.
They express the need for more innovations in the area of testing revealing that it’s still very expensive as testing a single sample costs about fifteen dollars. Asea suggests coming with a rapid testing kit.