Reducing aflatoxins in Kenya’s food chains: Filmed highlights from an ILRI media briefing

Last month (14 Nov 2013), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) held a roundtable briefing/discussion for science journalists in Nairobi to highlight on-going multi-institutional efforts to combat aflatoxins in the food chains of Kenya.

Aflatoxins are a naturally occurring carcinogenic by-product of common fungi that grow on grains and other food crops, particularly maize and groundnuts. Researchers from across East Africa are joining up efforts to address the significant human and animal health challenges posed by these food toxins in the region.

Watch this 6-minute film, which highlights some of the interventions being used to tackle aflatoxins in Kenya. The film features interviews with the five panelists at the media briefing, who came from the University of Nairobi, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Kenya, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA)-ILRI Hub, and ILRI.

‘Even though the presence of aflatoxins in Kenya dates back to the 1960s, the first recorded outbreak of aflatoxins that affected humans was recorded in the early 1980s,’ says Erastus Kang’ethe, a professor in the Department of Public Health at the University of Nairobi.

‘The biggest risk of aflatoxins comes from long-term exposure to these toxins, which leads to chronic aflatoxicosis,’ says Abigael Obura, of CDC. ‘The CDC in Kenya is working closely with the Ministry of Health to improve aflatoxin surveillance measures in Kenya’s districts through better sample collection and analysis.’

At the same time, Johanna Lindahl and other scientists at ILRI are assessing the risks posed by aflatoxins in Kenya’s dairy value chain; cows that consume aflatoxin-contaminated feeds produce milk that is also contaminated with the toxins.

According to Charity Mutegi, from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, one of the key strategies in managing aflatoxins in Kenya is by using a ‘biological control technology that targets the fungus that produces the aflatoxins while the crop is still in the field.’ Known more popularly as ‘aflasafe,’ this technology, which is expected to be available in the country soon, is in use in other parts of Africa where ‘farm trials have yielded aflatoxin reduction of over 70 percent,’ says Mutegi.

Jagger Harvey, a scientist with the BecA-ILRI Hub, says the hub has established a capacity building platform for aflatoxin research that is being used by maize breeders from Kenya and Tanzania to, among other control efforts, come up with maize varieties that are more resistance to the aflatoxin-causing fungus.

Read a related ILRI news article about a filmed interview of two scientists leading work of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, Delia Grace, of ILRI, and John McDermott, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, who describe some of the risks aflatoxins pose, new options for their better control and why research to combat these toxins matters so much.

View an ILRI infographic of the impact of aflatoxins in the food chain.

Read more on biological control to reduce aflatoxins.

Read more on strengthening regional research capacity to deal with aflatoxins.

‘The health of the poor is the wealth of the poor’: A little film for a big World Food Day and World Food Prize

The prevention and control of agriculture-associated diseases from FILM for SCIENCE in AGRICULTURE on Vimeo.

To honour World Food Day today, celebrated every year on 16 Oct in honour of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations on this date in 1945, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) invites you to watch a 3-minute film about a new research to reduce agriculture-associated diseases.

Delia Grace is a veterinary epidemiologist and food safety expert with ILRI, one of 15 CGIAR centres working for a food-secure world. Grace leads the ‘agriculture-associated diseases’ component of a CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health. The latter, led by the International Food Policy Research Institute, was started in 2012 to investigate the links between agriculture, nutrition and health in poor nations.

Here is Grace on just what ‘agriculture-associated diseases’ are, and why they matter.

The health of the poor is the wealth of the poor.
In hungry countries, most people cannot get enough nourishing and safe food. A third of humankind still grows their own food or buys local food in local markets. But the foods poor people grow, buy and eat often make them sick, and can even kill them.

Food-borne disease is the most common illness in the world.
Milk, eggs, meat and vegetables are especially dangerous. Yet these superior foods provide the world’s poorest two billion people with essential nutrients they need to grow, develop and be healthy and productive.

In addition, more than half of all human diseases are transmitted to people from farm and other animals.
These diseases include those like TB and AIDs, which are catastrophic in the developing world. And every six months, another new disease jumps from animals to people.

In 2012, the A4NH research program was started to investigate the links between agriculture, nutrition and health in poor nations. A4NH scientists aim  to find ways to lower people’s risk of disease from food farming, food markets and foods, while increasing agriculture’s benefits.

Health problems rooted in agriculture need solutions that start on the farm.And end with safe food in every household.

About World Food Day and the World Food Prize
The annual celebrations for World Food Day help to raise awareness of the issues behind poverty and hunger. In the US, the associated events include bestowal of the World Food Prize on individuals who have contributed the most to the world’s food supply. Along with former British prime minister Tony Blair and others, ILRI’s director general, Jimmy Smith, is in Des Moines, Iowa, today to participate in the World Food Prize Laureate Award Ceremony  and Borlaug Dialogue.

The World Food Prize was founded by Norman Borlaug, a CGIAR scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), in Mexico, whose work on high-yielding and disease-resistant wheat varieties led to the Green Revolution and his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

The winners of this year’s World Food Prize—Marc Van Montagu, Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T Fraley—made independent breakthroughs in agricultural biotechnology that have made it possible for farmers to grow crops that give greater yields, resist insects and disease, and tolerate extreme climates.

ILRI takes pleasure today in celebrating their achievements, as well as in honouring the following thirteen CGIAR scientists who have received the World Food Prize since the CGIAR’s Borlaug established the award in 1986:

  • 1987: MS Swaminathan, improved wheat and rice varieties in India, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)
  • 1988: Robert Chandler, improved tropical rice varieties, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)
  • 1990: John Niederhauser, control of potato late blight, International Potato Center (CIP)
  • 1995: Hans Herren, pest control for the cassava mealybug, International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA)
  • 1996: Henry Beachall and Gurdev Khush, rice breeders, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)
  • 2000: Evangelina Villegas and Surinder Vasal, development of Quality Protein Maize, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)
  • 2001: Per-Pinstrup Andersen, food-for-education programs, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
  • 2002: Pedro Sanchez, restoring fertility to soils, World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)
  • 2004: Monty Jones, developer of New Rice for Africa (NERICA), International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA)
  • 2005: Modadugu Gupta, promoter of acquaculture and architect of the ‘blue revolution’, WorldFish Center (WorldFish)
  • 2009: Gebisa Ejeta, sorghum breeder, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT)

In Nairobi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel puts on lab coat, meets young bioscientists fighting hunger in Africa

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Lydia Wamalwa talks with German Chancellor (and former scientist) Angela Merkel at ILRI-BecA labs (photo credit: ILRI/Njoroge).

Yesterday (12 Jul 2011), Lydia Wamalwa, a PhD student from the International Potato Center doing her research at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) labs at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), gave Chancellor Angela Merkel an overview of her research to improve the resistance of sweet potato to the sweet potato weevil, a pest that causes major losses to this, the third most important food crop in eastern and southern Africa.

Merkel visits ILRI Nairobi: Lab tour

Apollinaire Djikeng, BecA’s technology manager, introduces BecA, which is hosted and managed by ILRI, to Chancellor Merkel (photo credit: ILRI/Njoroge).

On the same lab tour, the Chancellor also heard from Appolinaire Djikeng, a Camerounian bioscientist who is BecA’s technology manager.

Djikeng explained that ILRI established BecA in 2006 with the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and funding from Canada. BecA provides state-of-the-art laboratory facilities to African scientists conducting research on the continent’s biggest food production problems.

In its first 5 years of operation, Djikeng said that BecA has:

  • strengthened biosciences capacity in the region and trained hundreds of young African agricultural scientists;
  • generated productive collaborations between dozens of scientists working in Africa with other experts working in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, in North America and in Asia; and
  • convened donor representatives, agricultural scientists and civil society leaders in dozens of high-quality meetings to identify research gaps and ways to close them.

‘You’re now standing in BecA’s crop research laboratory,’ Djikeng said. ‘Many institutes have recently relocated their agricultural research programs here to take advantage of BecA’s resources, unique in sub-Saharan Africa.’

Among the international teams hosted by ILRI-BecA are those leading work on:

  • cassava, banana and yams (IITA [International Institute for Tropical Agriculture], based in West Africa)
  • sorghum, millet and other cereals of drylands (ICRISAT [International Centre for Research in the Semi-Arid Tropics], based in India)
  • potato and sweet potato (CIP [International Potato Center], based in Peru), and
  • drought-tolerant maize for Africa (CIMMYT [International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre], based in Mexico).

One of BecA’s trainees, Rachel Aye, then told the Chancellor about how German support and BecA facilities are enabling her to advance development of a vaccine against a disease that is ravaging the livestock of Africa, including in her country, Uganda.

Djikeng and Aye thanked Chancellor Merkel on behalf of all their colleagues for making this historic visit and for her country’s longstanding support of agricultural research for development.

New study warns that climate change could create agricultural winners and losers in East Africa

While predicting highly variable impacts on agriculture by 2050, experts show that with adequate investment the region can still achieve food security for all

Forage Diversity field on ILRI Addis campus

As African leaders prepare to present an ambitious proposal to industrialized countries for coping with climate change in the part of the world that is most vulnerable to its impacts, a new study points to where and how some of this money should be spent. Published in the peer-reviewed journal Agricultural Systems, the study projects that climate change will have highly variable impacts on East Africa’s vital maize and bean harvests over the next two to four decades, presenting growers and livestock keepers with both threats and opportunities.

Previous estimates by the study’s authors projected moderate declines in the production of staple foods by 2050 for the region as a whole but also suggested that the overall picture disguises large differences within and between countries. The new findings provide a more detailed picture than before of variable climate change impacts in East Africa, assessing them according to broadly defined agricultural areas.

‘Even though these types of projections involve much uncertainty, they leave no room for complacency about East Africa’s food security in the coming decades,’ said the lead author of the new study, Philip Thornton of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which is supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). ‘Countries need to act boldly if they’re to seize opportunities for intensified farming in favored locations, while cushioning the blow that will fall on rural people in more vulnerable areas.’

The researchers simulated likely shifts in cropping, using a combination of two climate change models and two scenarios for greenhouse gas emissions, together with state-of-the-art models for maize and beans, two of the region’s primary staple foods.

In the mixed crop-livestock systems of the tropical highlands, the study shows that rising temperatures may actually favor food crops, helping boost output of maize by about half in highland ‘breadbasket’ areas of Kenya and beans to much the same degree in similar parts of Tanzania. Meanwhile, harvests of maize and beans could decrease in some of the more humid areas, under the climate scenarios used in the study. Across the entire region, production of both crops is projected to decline significantly in drylands, particularly in Tanzania.

‘The emerging scenario of climate-change winners and losers is not inevitable,’ said ILRI director general Carlos Seré. ‘Despite an expected three-fold increase in food demand by 2050, East Africa can still deliver food security for all through a smart approach that carefully matches policies and technologies to the needs and opportunities of particular farming areas.’

At the Seventh World Forum on Sustainable Development, held recently in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, African leaders announced a plan to ask the industrialized world to pay developing countries USD67 billion a year as part of the continent’s common negotiating position for December’s climate talks in Copenhagen.

The ILRI study analyzes various means by which governments and rural households can respond to climate change impacts at different locations. In Kenya, for example, the authors suggest that shifting bean production more to the cooler highland areas might offset some of the losses expected in other systems.

Similarly, Tanzania and Uganda could compensate for projected deficits in both maize and beans through increased regional trade. In the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), maize trade is already worth more than USD1 billion, but only 10 percent of it occurs within the region. As grain prices continue to rise in global markets, several East African countries will be well positioned to expand output of maize and beans for regional markets, thus reducing reliance on imports and boosting rural incomes.

Where crop yields are expected to decline only moderately because of climate change, past experience suggests that rural households can respond effectively by adopting new technologies to intensify crop and livestock production, many of which are being developed by various CGIAR-supported centres and their national partners.

Drought-tolerant maize varieties, for example, have the potential to generate benefits for farmers estimated at USD863 million or more in 13 African countries over the next 6 years, according to a new study carried out by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Meanwhile, new heat-tolerant varieties of productive climbing beans, which are traditionally grown in highlands, are permitting their adoption at lower elevations, where they yield more than twice as much grain as the bush-type beans grown currently, according to Robin Buruchara of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

In areas that face drastic reductions in maize and bean yields, farmers may need to resort to more radical options, such as changing the types of crops they grow (replacing maize, for example, with sorghum or millet), keeping more livestock or abandoning crops altogether to embrace new alternatives, such as the provision of environmental services, including carbon sequestration.

This latter option could become a reality under COMESA’s Africa Biocarbon Initiative, which is designed to tap the huge potential of the region’s diverse farmlands and other rural landscapes, ranging from dry grasslands to humid tropical forests, for storing millions of tons of carbon. The initiative offers African negotiators an appealing option in their efforts to influence a future climate change agreement.

‘If included in emissions payment schemes, this initiative could create new sources of income for African farmers and enhance their resilience to climate change,’ said Peter Akong Minang, global coordinator of the Alternatives to Slash-and-Burn (ASB) Programme at the World Agroforestry Centre. ‘Its broad landscape approach would open the door for many African countries to actively participate in, and benefit from, global carbon markets.’

‘Rural people manage their livelihoods and land in an integrated way that encompasses many activities,’ said Bruce Campbell, director of the CGIAR’s Challenge Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security. ‘That’s why they need integrated options to cope with climate change, consisting of diverse innovations, such as drought-tolerant crops, better management of livestock, provision of environmental services and so forth.’

How rapidly and successfully East African nations and rural households can take advantage of such measures will depend on aggressive new investments in agriculture, CGIAR researchers argue. According to a recent study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), it will take about USD7 billion annually, invested mainly in rural roads, better water management and increased agricultural research, to avert the dire implications of climate change for child nutrition worldwide.

About 40 per cent of that investment would address the needs of sub-Saharan Africa, where modest reductions projected for maize yields in the region as a whole are expected to translate into a dramatic rise in the number of malnourished children by 2050. Thornton’s projections probably underestimate the impacts on crop production, because they reflect increasing temperatures and rainfall changes only and not greater variability in the weather and growing pressure from stresses like drought and insect pests.

‘Farmers and pastoralists in East Africa have a long history of dealing with the vagaries of the weather,’ said Seré. ‘But climate change will stretch their adaptive capacity beyond its limits, as recent severe drought in the region has made abundantly clear. Let’s not leave rural people to fend for themselves but rather invest significantly in helping them build a more viable future.’

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About ILRI:
The Africa-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) works at the crossroads of livestock and poverty, bringing high-quality science and capacity-building to bear on poverty reduction and sustainable development. ILRI is one of 15 centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). It has its headquarters in Kenya and a principal campus in Ethiopia. It also has teams working out of offices in Nigeria, Mali, Mozambique, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and China. www.ilri.org.

About the CGIAR: The CGIAR, established in 1971, is a strategic partnership of countries, international and regional organizations and private foundations supporting the work of 15 international Centers. In collaboration with national agricultural research systems, civil society and the private sector, the CGIAR fosters sustainable agricultural growth through high-quality science aimed at benefiting the poor through stronger food security, better human nutrition and health, higher incomes and improved management of natural resources. www.cgiar.org