Aflatoxins are natural poisons produced when certain mould species namely; (Aspergillus avus and Aspergillus parasiticus) grow on foods. They are often detected during the pre-harvest, harvesting, handling, storage, processing and transport stages of the food value chain if conditions are favourable. Malawi loses an estimated K23 billion in rejected export trade annually due to produce contamination by aflatoxins. CHARLES MKOKA caught up with Mphatso Dakamau, country officer of the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control (Pac) in Africa under the African Union Commission (AUC) to shed more light on efforts underway to curb this fungi hindering access to global market in agriculture produce.
Q: We have heard about aflatoxins for some time now. What are they?
A: Aflatoxins are naturally occurring toxic compounds produced by fungi which affect crops growing in the field, or during post harvest handling and storage. They are virtually indestructible by food processing, they cannot be seen by the naked eye and their health effects mostly manifest over time [chronic exposure]– making them a silent and invisible killer. They occur widely in diverse food products including maize, groundnuts and sorghum, which are staple foods in Malawi.
Q: As Malawi do we know the extent of contamination and the risks associated with exposure to food contaminated with aflatoxins?
A: Government developed the Malawi Programme for Aflatoxin Control [Mapac] in 2012. This is the overall national strategy to control aflatoxins. In 2017, government with support from Paca of the AU conducted a study to estimate the economic impact of Aflatoxin in Malawi. This study has unearthed so many details on the extent of the risks associated with aflatoxins which we previously didn’t know. The economic impact assessment focused on maize, groundnuts and sorghum, key value chains in the agriculture sector that are more susceptible to aflatoxin attacks.
Q: What is the extent of aflatoxin exposure among Malawians?
A: Most Malawians are exposed to aflatoxin through the food they eat. You know that most Malawians diet has a lot of maize and groundnuts and their products. Per capita consumption in Malawi is about 356 gramme per day and 30.4 gramme per day for Maize and groundnut, respectively. Based on this level of consumption of maize and groundnut consumptions, daily exposure to aflatoxin is high.
Q: What is the risk?
A: Aflatoxin is responsible for 30 percent of all liver cancers globally. In 2017, AU estimated that the risk of aflatoxin-induced liver cancer cases was 11.89 per 100 000 human population which translates to a national total of 2 171 aflatoxin-induced liver cancer cases per year. You may wish to know that the risk of developing liver cancer when individuals are exposed to aflatoxin is 30 times higher in individuals exposed to Hepatitis B Virus compared to those who are not.
Q: What is the economic impact of aflatoxin-induced liver cancer in Malawi?
A: Malawi is losing up to $392.6 million annually due to aflatoxin-induced liver cancer cases. This impact of aflatoxin-induced liver cancer was estimated using the Value of Statistical Life [VSL]. When policies are designed to reduce health risks, agencies use a metric called VSL to estimate benefits. In the simplest terms, a VSL is an estimate for how much people are willing to pay to reduce their risk of death.
Q: What is the economic lodd for Malawi due to aflatoxin contamination in agriculture produce?
A: Malawi loses at least $31 million (K23 billion), yearly in potential export earnings from groundnuts if Malawi was able to comply with aflatoxin limits and export to the European Union market.
Q: What are the roles of key institutions involved in the delivery of food safety control services in Malawi?
A: Controlling aflatoxins is complex and there is no silver bullet for effectively containing the poison nor can a single actor comprehensively address this complex challenge. It is the responsibility of every Malawian to control aflatoxin contamination in food. All of us who participate in the value chains such as producers [farmers], transporters, traders, processors, consumers, government, civil society groups, donors and the media have a role to play in controlling aflatoxin.
Government is leading the way in many aspects of controlling aflatoxin by developing evidence-based and stakeholder aligned National Aflatoxin Control Action Plan which identifies priority intervention areas that will lead to meaningful impact in addressing the aflatoxin menace. The action plan has identified the roles of every actor who can contribute to aflatoxin control in the country including the private sector and development partners. There are also efforts by government invested in building capacity, both human and infrastructure, to help test for aflatoxin effectively. It has intensified communication and awareness programs; It is also working on initial steps to come up with a comprehensive food safety policy and legal framework. We are optimistic that this momentum will keep gaining pace and that there will be more public funds allocated to food safety and aflatoxin control specifically.
We also need consumers to start demanding for safe food, food that is free from aflatoxin contamination. This way traders and processors will adjust their operations in order to meet the needs and preferences of their consumers as part of quality assurance. We need everybody to contribute in any way they can, even if it is in the smallest way, to ensure that we eradicate aflatoxin contamination in our food. Let us all join hands in the fight against aflatoxin contamination. We can do it!