By Emma Okereh
Mycotoxins are the most underprioritized, high-risk, and diffuse threat to public health and food and nutrition security in Nigeria today. This was the submission of the Director- General, Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS), Dr. Vincent Isegbe, at the University of Abuja while headlining the 14th Annual Conference and Workshop of the Mycotoxicology Society of Nigeria as lead speaker.
Speaking on the topic, ”Mycotoxins and Health Outcomes”, Dr. Isegbe mentioned that the major classes of mycotoxins such as aflatoxins and ochratoxins impact cause food quantity and quality losses on a large number of agricultural commodities. They include grains, groundnut, dried fruits, spices, oilseeds, fruit juices, and other foodstuff and feed crops. He pointed out that ‘’mycotoxins are particularly destructive and dangerous because they affect crops that dominate the farmlands of Nigeria and the culinary culture of our people.’’
A press statement signed by the head, media, communication and strategies of the Service and made available to newsmen stated that he further posits that mycotoxins were ‘’a crushing burden on the Nigerian food system’’ considering that they contaminate crops at all the points in the value chain –pre-harvest, harvest, drying, and storage. He noted that ‘’the adverse effects of mycotoxins at different stages of the crop production process cut down Nigeria’s annual crop output by 25 percent. The damage they do to crop quality limits the country’s access to the export market. Hence, mycotoxins reduce food availability in the local market, shrinks the incomes of stakeholders, and undermines our export competitiveness. Their damage also limits job creation in the agricultural sector.’’
On the nexus between mycotoxins and health, Dr. Isegbe remarked that the consumption of mycotoxin-contaminated foods and feed cause health fragility and deaths in humans and animals. Mycotoxins cause child stunting, cancer, immune and neurological impairments, among other diseases. He warned that ‘’the prevalence of mycotoxins in the food production system is not something to trifle with. Rather, the ubiquity of mycotoxin contamination makes it a grave threat not only to food security but national security.’’
He congratulated Nigerian mycotoxicologists on their recognition as the ”the most active research community on aflatoxin in West Africa’’ and best-in-class expertise in the subject matter by an ECOWAS Scoping Report. He noted that the glowing assessment was proof that Nigeria has a cream of homegrown specialists and a trove of knowledge products that the country can leverage to accelerate her leadership in mycotoxicology.
Dr. Isegbe, however, regretted that Nigeria appeared to be doing less with her head start in mycotoxin research due to failure to harness accessible expertise and stimulate path-breaking research. He said this was due, in part, to the fact that ‘’the country has no budget dedicated to mycotoxin management. It is nested within the omnibus food safety overheads, a category in which other historically preeminent line items crowd it out.’’ To begin the pivot to better health outcomes, he advised that ‘’mycotoxin control activities be accorded a standalone status in national planning and ample provisions made for it as a cross-sectoral priority encompassing health, agriculture, trade, and national security.’’
He called for more sensitization and education of farmers and other stakeholders on mycotoxin prevention and control. He acknowledged that getting all value chain players all over the country to adopt Good Agricultural Practices would be a tipping point.
He also urged the key actors in the food safety regulation environment to work together to build synergy. ‘’We said that Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service, Standards Organization of Nigeria, the Federal Produce Inspection Service, the National Agency for Food.