News / Africa

Harmless Fungus Protects African Crops from Deadly Strain

Possible solution to Kenya's fatal aflatoxin outbreaks

People sharing and distributing aflasafe on a farm in Nigeria.
People sharing and distributing aflasafe on a farm in Nigeria.



As Kenya suffers with another outbreak of deadly aflatoxin contamination, scientists say a harmless version of the fungus that produces the toxin could be a powerful ally in preventing future outbreaks.

Aflatoxin is a natural poison produced by a fungus that grows on maize, cassava, ground nuts, and other crops. The mold thrives in hot, humid conditions.

At high doses, aflatoxin causes liver damage that can be fatal. A 2004 outbreak in Kenya killed at least 125 people.

This month, the Kenyan government warned that at least one person had died and 2.3 million bags of maize were contaminated with the poison.

Aflatoxin is dangerous even at low doses. It can cause cancer, stunt children's growth, and weaken the immune system.

Men distributing aflasafe to farmers in Nigeria.
Men distributing aflasafe to farmers in Nigeria.

Giving the good guys a head start

Some of the strains found in Kenya produce especially high levels of aflatoxin. But Peter Cotty, a plant disease expert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says there also are naturally occurring strains of the fungus in Kenya that produce no aflatoxin at all.

"They occur already in the villages. They're just at low frequency," he says. "We can use techniques to find these fungi, and we can release them in a manner that allows them to out-compete these very high toxin-producers."

Cotty and his colleagues help the harmless fungi compete by giving them a head start over the bad guys. They grow the good guys on grains such as barley or sorghum that are sterilized so they don't sprout. When farmers spread these grains among their crops, the harmless mold proliferates, feeding on dead plants and insects. It will "multiply and spread throughout the field and displace the toxin producers," he says.

Fighting fungus with fungus

Cotty and colleagues at the Nigeria-based International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) have registered a product called Aflasafe with Nigerian regulators. In field tests last year, farmers who used the grains coated with harmless fungi reduced aflatoxin contamination by an average of 80 percent.

U.S. farmers are also fighting fungus with fungus. For example, cotton growers need to ward off aflatoxin contamination or they won't be able to sell the seeds for animal feed. Michael Braverman at Rutgers University manages a program helping scientists register new natural crop protection products with U.S. regulators. He says cotton growers in the southwestern state of Arizona use the same method being tested in Nigeria.

"It's effective enough that the growers in Arizona have built their own facility to manufacture this product," he says. "They are not only consumers of the product, they are the official body that owns the registration."

Peter Cotty and the IITA are now looking for a partner to bring the technology to farmers in Kenya, where aflatoxin contamination is taking a terrible toll on people and the economy.

You May Like

Germany Celebrates 25 Years of Unity

October 3 is a public holiday, marking the day in 1990 when East Germany and West Germany reunited More

Analysts: Russia's Syria Strikes Shake Regional Powers

If Moscow bolsters Assad, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries may feel obliged to step in More

Video Innovative Nano-Tech Water Filter Prevents Disease

It can absorb contaminants like copper, bacteria, viruses and pesticides, says Askwar Hilonga, who has been successfully trying out his product in Arusha More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs