agroecology

Agroecology, a remedy to mycotoxins in Northern Uganda

(Last Updated On: 13 August 2023)

Gulu I Leaders from Acholi sub-region have made a call for government intervention over mycotoxin contamination in the North and countrywide.

The call was made through a motion to address challenges of mycotoxin moved by Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, MP of Bardege-Layibi Division on Tuesday, July 18, 2023.

Ojara noted that there is a need for adequate sensitization on proper post-harvest handling and management techniques to curb the toxicity burden faced by farmers in the region.

Mycotoxins or aflatoxins, in general, are poisonous carcinogens that are produced by Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus molds which grow in grains and are commonly found in improperly stored staple commodities like cassava, chilli peppers, corn, millet, rice, simsim seeds, sorghum and sunflower.

“There were discussions about goods that were impounded in South Sudan when our traders went to conduct business. These goods were impounded majorly because of mycotoxin contamination,” Mapenduzi said.

Adding that, “the food grains produced in Northern Uganda are mainly sorghum, maize, millet, and rice. Groundnuts which are legumes are also widely grown in the region but highly susceptible to mycotoxin contamination.”

Ojara’s explanation is not quite far from Dr Richard Echodu’s findings on mycotoxins contamination in food in Northern Uganda. His findings reveal that aflatoxin in the foods analyzed varied from 0 to 68.2 ug/kg, ochratoxin ranged from 0.1 to 16.4 ug/kg and deoxynivalenol (DON) ranged from 0 to 2606 ug/kg.

DON is one of several mycotoxins produced by certain Fusarium species that frequently infect grains in the field or during storage.

While releasing the report at the Gulu University main hall in Gulu City the research team leader Dr Echodu (PhD Molecular Genetics) and the Dean of Faculty of Science at Gulu University said aflatoxins, ochratoxins and deoxynivalenol contamination was assessed by quantitative enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay and found to be higher than normal.

“Mean aflatoxin in sorghum samples was 11.8 ug/kg exceeding the Ugandan national regulatory limits of 10 ug/kg and 46.5% of the sorghum consumed in sampled districts exceeded this limit while 86.1% of sorghum samples exceeded the European Union (EU) maximum tolerable limit of 4 ug/Kg,” Dr Echodu said.

In an interview, Dr Echodu said: “Food toxicity technically means that such agro-based products cannot be allowed for sale or export to the European market because almost 70% cannot pass the European standards.”

Aflatoxins and mycotoxins levels of food contamination sampled from Kitgum, Omoro, Amuru and Lamwo areas proved that 35% of foods consumed are poisonous and not safe.

Anthony Aabuka, Member of Parliament, Lamwo County attributed instances of mycotoxin contamination to poor food storage and recommended that a National Cereals and Other Produce Board will address the challenge.

“The issue of aflatoxin, grading of produce and standard can be applied in a department just like Kenya and Tanzania are doing. They have silos for storing and grading produce. We had a product marketing board in this country but I do not see it working,” Aabuka said.

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Boniface Okot, the Northern Region Youth Member of Parliament said that the element of food safety is a need and no longer a luxury. He added that mycotoxins turn out to be aflatoxin and some of the diseases like Hepatitis find it easy to thrive in an environment where there is mycotoxin.

Okot noted that the existence of diseases like Hepatitis and Liver Cancer have been facilitated by the mycotoxin in food and it is a risk in terms of health, and economic development.

“The element of food safety is no longer a luxury but a need. The mycotoxin turns to be aflatoxin and diseases like Hepatitis find it easy to thrive in an environment where there is aflatoxin,” Okot said.

The youth MP added: “It is a risk in terms of health, and economic development. In one of the statistics, we have, our development is hindered by 0.26%. 0.26% is a significant figure in terms of reduction in our economic growth.”

“Even in terms of export, by the year 2018, we were losing USD577 million in terms of export on account of aflatoxins,” he added.

This relates to a 12-year review on mycotoxins contamination in foods consumed in Uganda (2006-18) led by Mr Fred Brany Lukwago from Makerere University, Department of Food Technology and Human Nutrition.

The review has shown that aflatoxin contamination reduces economic growth by 0.26% in Uganda owing to a decline in productivity.

“Uganda loses USD577 million annually as a result of 3700 aflatoxin-induced liver cancer cases. Aflatoxin contamination of sorghum, maize and peanuts causes a decline in exports valued at 7.48 US million dollars which accounts for a 45% reduction in total agricultural exports,” The review reads in part.

The researchers thus noted that there are no fully developed strategies for the control of mycotoxins contamination in food and food products in Uganda.

Another research conducted by Gulu University indicates that mycotoxin contamination is a large food safety issue in Northern Uganda and that about 90% of grain produced from Northern Uganda is contaminated, and partly responsible for the high prevalence rate of Hepatitis B and liver cancer in the region.

The research further says the situation has been made worse due to limited surveillance.

Challenge

Mycotoxins have been implicated in a range of human and animal diseases and occur in a variety of grains. The ingestion of mycotoxins can produce both acute (short-term) and chronic (medium and or long-term) toxicities ranging from death to chronic interferences with the function of the central nervous, cardiovascular and pulmonary systems, and of the alimentary tract.

The mycotoxins have attracted worldwide attention, over the past 30 years, firstly because of their perceived impact on human health, secondly because of the economic losses accruing from condemned foods/feeds and decreased animal productivity, and thirdly because of the serious impact of mycotoxin contamination on internationally traded commodities.

According to Dr Godfrey Asea of the National Crops Resources Research Institute, Uganda’s maize poses a cancer risk to the consumer due to the high concentration of aflatoxin.

However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), aflatoxin is a fungal toxin that, when consumed in large amounts, can cause cancer, organ damage, and death.

“Uganda produces about five million metric tons of grain per year, and from the research, samples of these grains contain up to 100 parts per billion of aflatoxins, which is higher than that recommended by the WHO (10 parts per billion),” Dr Asea explained in an interview.

Aflatoxin production is encouraged by insect damage, mechanical damage, drought stress and excessive rainfall. The aflatoxins may occur, both before and after harvest, on virtually any food or feed which supports fungal growth, including cereals, oilseeds and edible nuts.

Maize, groundnuts, cottonseed, oil palm kernels and copra are particularly associated with the occurrence of aflatoxins. The very substantial international trade in these commodities serves to amplify the worldwide nature of the aflatoxin problem.

In responding to the risk posed by Uganda’s maize flour, Mary Gordon, the Executive Officer for the South Sudan National Bureau of Standards (SSNBS), said the body needs support to strengthen its screening at the border to ensure that citizens are protected from such maize.

“We are aware of the report that Ugandan maize poses a cancer risk, and we are working hard to ensure proper border screening,” Gordon said.

She however appealed to the business community and the public to focus on production to reduce the risks.

Adding that “Why are we not producing? This is a time for us to support ourselves and produce enough food.”

Response

To address productivity declines and aflatoxins, farmers in Northern Uganda are gradually turning to an integrated system that incorporates several agroecological principles.

Because the cropping system is intensive and productive throughout the year, farmers fertilize with farmyard manure (collected in livestock corrals, or kraals) and ash instead of chemicals.

The benefits of organic amendments such as ash and manure are well-recognized by farmers and researchers. Ash provides nutrients-potassium, in particular – and has a liming effect on acid soils.

Manure provides vital nutrients for plant uptake and enhances long-term soil fertility by improving its physical properties. Appropriate application rates vary, depending on soil quality, crop, and availability of amendments.

To provide manure, as well as milk, eggs, and meat; farmers maintain at least one animal per household. Local breeds selected for drought and disease tolerance are preferred, as they require fewer costly nutritional supplements. Weeding is also a necessary component of the system.

Intercropping consists of alternating rows of a cereal or tuber with a legume such as pigeon pea, cowpea, or beans as well as a vegetable row of pumpkin or leafy greens.

It brings an overall greater yield per unit area (even if a particular crop yield might be lower due to fewer plants per unit area).

Yield increases come from the legumes’ ability to fix nitrogen in the soil; from decreased competition for light, water, and nutrients due to different plant architecture; or from intercrops acting as living mulch that maintains soil moisture and reduces erosion and suppresses weeds.

From an economic perspective, increasing crop diversity through intercropping protects farm income by buffering against yield fluctuations for a single crop, essentially spreading price and yield fluctuation risk across several crops.

This story was produced with support from the Agroecology School for Journalists and Communicators and the Eastern and Southern Africa Small-Scale Farmers Forum (ESAAF) Uganda.

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