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Climate change spurs rise in mycotoxin contamination

Extreme weather conditions in recent years introduce new mycotoxin challenges to human food and animal feed industries.

Moldy Corn With Aflatoxin
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This article appears in the August/September issue of Feed International. View all of the articles in the digital edition of this magazine.


Lectures at the 2016 World Mycotoxin Forum (WMF) addressed aspects of the event’s theme, “Mycotoxins in a changing world”; however, the consensus among many speakers touched on the undeniable impact climate change has had – and will increasingly have – on mycotoxin contamination in the global food and feed supply.

In coming years, agriculture will need to deal with a varied group of issues related to climate change and its residual effects: Grain producers may need to adjust how they plant, what they plant and when. Warmer weather will usher in more insect and fungi infestations which, in turn, will result in increased use of pesticides and fungicides. And, as the representatives from European stakeholder agencies reported, climate change is likely to increase the prevalence of mycotoxins in many countries – affecting animal and human health, feed and food quality, and global trade.

Mycotoxins, climate change and health

“All of us know the temperature is increasing and this means there will be more incidents of mycotoxin contamination in certain areas,” said Dr. Mari Eskola, science officer on the biological hazards and contaminants team with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

She went on to point out that new mycotoxins may emerge,  mycotoxins may appear in regions where they had not commonly been found before, and the food supply chain will encounter more modified mycotoxins and an increase in co-occurrences – defined as more than one type of mycotoxin working together to create adverse health effects.

According to Eskola, climate change will force the food and feed industries to review the risks and benefits in the future: “We may need to accept there will be more mycotoxins in our food, that the concentrations are higher. Do we need to accept lower quality? Will we need to accept that there are more fungicides and pesticides in our food and feed?”

“Climate change is one of the key emerging issues – not just with mycotoxins – but with risk exposure in general,” said Dr. Vittorio Fattori, Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and FAO/WHO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).

On this note, the number of speakers suggested that food shortages may be caused by high levels of mycotoxin contamination in parts of the world. And, in areas where high levels are consumed, there will be an increase in certain types of cancer, chronic illnesses and long-lasting impacts on the development of children and infants. In food-producing animals, farmers will experience lost productivity and more mycotoxin-related deaths.

Short- and long-term economic impacts

Beyond implications for food and feed safety, increased mycotoxin contamination will also take a tremendous toll on the economies of the countries most impacted, specifically as it relates to their ability to export commodities to markets with low mycotoxin thresholds.

“In the perfect scenario, maximum levels are set so they are protecting public health, but also achievable through good management practices,” said Frans Verstraete, M.Sc., directorate general of health & food safety European Commission (EC), the agency responsible for setting maximum levels (ML) for mycotoxins in the EU.  “However, the last few years we have been comforted situations where extreme weather conditions made it impossible to achieve the threshold even with good practices.”

In Africa, for example, $670 million in trade is lost due to mycotoxin levels consistently exceeding the maximum levels of export countries, reported Ranajit Bandyopadhyay with the African Union Commission.

Building off research conducted in 2003, an updated USDA economic research report suggests the impact of revenue lost to mycotoxins will increase in the short term – and the effects of climate change will likely push these losses higher in the future.

“The increased prevalence of high mycotoxin levels are a fact and the major cause is climate change,” Verstraete said. The EC concluded that in order to have a sustainable situation a comprehensive approach needs developed, one  that takes into account “constraints from an agricultural point of view and from an environmental perspective.”

The EC plans to develop this “comprehensive strategy” for mycotoxin risk mitigation in the future.

The 2016 World Mycotoxin Forum, a bienniel joint meeting of The World Mycotoxins Forum and IUPAC International Symposium on Mycotoxins, was held in Winnipeg, Canada, June 6-9. The conference drew more than 400 international attendees.

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