As global temperatures creep inexorably upwards, the warming helps toxins to thrive, with dire consequences for human health. There are millions of stunted children in the world today, because poorly stored food crops are developing moulds that produce poisons which damage health and cause malnutrition.

An estimated 500 million of the poorest people in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America are affected by these poisons, which are known as mycotoxins and are produced by moulds that grow on people’s staple diets – groundnuts, maize and other cereals.

The poisoning can be so severe that in some cases people die immediately, but normally the toxins are in lower doses, reducing the nutritional value of the food and in some cases causing cancer.

In richer countries stricter control over how grain is stored, and testing for mycotoxins, eliminate most of the problems. For example, the EU has strict legislative limits on a range of foodstuffs from cereals to nuts, dried fruit, fruit juices, spices, coffee and cocoa.

Poorest hit

However, in middle or low income countries, where controls are not so great, it is the poorest members of the community that eat foods contaminated with mould, according to the World Health Organisation.

There is also concern that climate change is making the situation worse. Extreme climate in places like India, where the problem is already severe, provide perfect conditions for the moulds to grow.

Among the scientists working on the problem is Professor Naresh Magan of Cranfield University, UK. He says: “The impact is not only in relation to drought stress and increased temperature and CO2, but a movement of pests which can cause damage and allow more mycotoxigenic fungi to infect staple foods, for example maize.

“Mycotoxins are a particular problem because they are heat-stable and, once formed, difficult to destroy. Cooking will not degrade them and processing only decreases the toxin content by 25–40%.”

The three species of moulds that produce mycotoxins are aspergillus, penicillium and fusarium.

According to a report by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), for many children the problem starts in the womb, because their mothers are poorly nourished, lack vitamins, and need mineral supplements.

This results in an estimated 26% of the world’s children younger than five years having stunted stature, and 8% being much too thin for their height.

“Insufficient gains in length/height and weight from birth to age five years, resulting from childhood under-nutrition, put the child at increased risk of morbidity and mortality from infectious diseases as well as impaired mental development, reduced learning capacity in school, and lower earning potential as an adult, among other effects”, the report says.

Almost all of Africa is affected, but the problem is also severe in south Asia, Caribbean countries and populous Pacific islands like Indonesia and the Philippines.

High exposure

“In these countries it is the poorest people who are exposed to the pervasive natural toxins, aflatoxins and fumonisins [a distinct group of mycotoxins], on a daily basis, simply by eating their staple diet. Exposure occurs throughout life at levels far in excess of internationally accepted norms.

“This contrasts starkly with the situation in developed countries, where people and livestock are protected by good agricultural practices, regulation, and legislation”, the experts say.

The report recommends an education programme for developing country farmers to try to eliminate the fungi that cause the problem. A series of preventative measures is being tested.

Dr Christopher Wild, director of IARC, said: “The health impact of mycotoxins in food has been neglected for too long. We have the tools to make a difference; now we must find the political will.” – Climate News Network

• This report was first published in Climate News Network