Mycotoxins, the menace that’s getting worse
Following on from his visit to the World Mycotoxin Forum, Professor Chris Elliott flags three key emerging issues which were raised at the event around mycotoxins.
I attended the World Mycotoxin Forum in Parma, Italy last week, my first in-person conference since the Covid pandemic began. More than 400 researchers and feed and food industry delegates from across the world met to catch up on where things sit in relation to mycotoxins.
For those who aren’t familiar with the subject area, mycotoxins are the products of certain fungi and are present in between 60 to 80 percent of all food crops worldwide. They are, as the name suggests, very toxic to both livestock and humans, and can cause a number of diseases, such as cancers and even result in death. We have known about them since the 1960s, but new evidence of their importance is continually emerging and there were some really important new findings announced at the Forum this year.
1. Mycotoxins, livestock and sustainability
The first noteworthy finding I’d like to highlight (perhaps for selfish reasons, as it was based on research from my own group at Queen’s University), is the negative impact of low levels of mycotoxins on livestock productivity and environmental sustainability. This has is a newly emerging area and one which needs to be fully quantified.
There is the potential to improve farm profitability and reduce the climate impacts of livestock production by implementing solutions to mycotoxin contamination in animal feed that are already available in some cases.
2. Mycotoxins and plant-based diets
The second point came as a bit of a surprise to me, but then after it was revealed it was like – well, that’s been right in front of our faces the whole time. This revolves around the fact that those who are pursuing a plant-only diet are exposing themselves to more mycotoxins than those on omnivorous diets. Often the adverse effects of a meat-based diet are the talking point and usually misrepresented, so in the case of plant-only diets I hope the discussions will be evidence-based and sensible.
The next topic I bring to the fore is how climate change is driving increasing levels of mycotoxins in many crops in different parts of the world. The main impact of this is that human health consequences of exposure will be most severely felt in the developing world, and in particular, in African and Asian populations. Mycotoxins should be considered as a serious and growing public health risk.
3. Mycotoxins, regulations and feeding the world
The final point is linked to the previous one. There is an expression in food safety that ‘unsafe food isn’t food’. However, in the case of mycotoxins there is a growing ethical and moral dilemma. In Europe, we have some of the strictest regulations in the world regarding mycotoxins levels. So far it has been fine to impose such standards and refuse imports of any commodities that do not meet these limits, but it’s unclear what the future holds for Europe.
We are on the brink of a food security crisis in Europe – which is already impacting some regions – will this mean that our regulations will need a rethink so we are able to feed the growing population?
And as many global regions plunge into the worst levels of food insecurity for decades, driven by climate change and the Ukraine war, what about the regulations in the developed world?
Our strict standards have been designed to protect human safety and facilitate international trade, but could they now add to global hunger?
What is clear is that there is much thinking, but what we need is action – action from policy makers across the world on mycotoxins. As you might expect it is a debate I will follow carefully.