St. Paul, Minn. (August 22, 2001)—Certain crops are susceptible to molds and fungi that produce what scientists call mycotoxins. Considered carcinogenic, these particular food invaders are closely watched by the United States, but standards around the world vary and in many countries people routinely consume mycotoxins in their daily diets. Now scientists want to know the worldwide impact of mycotoxins. On August 28, the world’s largest group of plant health scientists will hold a symposium to discuss these issues in depth.
“Humans have known about mycotoxins for hundreds of years, as early as the 11th century AD,” states Kitty Cardwell, a plant health researcher formerly with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and organizer of the meeting on mycotoxins. Certain foods, such as nuts, corn, barley, and wheat, are the most susceptible and because mycotoxins have been linked to liver cancer and possible disruptions in small children’s growth and immune system development, food producers and regulators in most countries have been aggressive in their attempts to keep mycotoxins out of the food supply, or at least at barely traceable levels.
In the United States, those aggressive policies have proven expensive. Scientists say that even by conservative calculations, mycotoxins cost the United States between $500 million and $1.5 billion a year in lost crop revenues and expenses associated with research and monitoring. States Cardwell, “Mycotoxins continue to be a key problem and even after more than 30 years of research, we’re still far from controlling the growth of the fungi that produce mycotoxins in the first place. It is perhaps one of our greatest agricultural challenges.”
The stakes become even higher when scientists look at developing countries where the amount of mycotoxin-contaminated foods routinely consumed by people is alarmingly high. In one study of West African children for example, researchers found that 99% of the children they tested had aflatoxin in their blood - a mycotoxin considered to be one of the most potently carcinogenic. This study, along with a similar one on mycotoxin consumption in Nepal, will be one of the topics of discussion when the scientists meet. Adds Cardwell, “In the United States, it’s primarily a cost issue, but in other parts of the world it’s a significant human health issue. And that makes it a top priority for researchers.”
Visit APSnet for more information. The American Phytopathological Society (APS) is a nonprofit, professional scientific organization dedicated to the study and control of plant diseases, with 5,000 members worldwide.