The toxic green-black mold is called Aspergillus flavus, and it is so toxic that in 1995, Saddam Hussein admitted to weaponizing the mold spores for biological warfare. If ingested, aspergillus, also called aflatoxin, can kill pets, poison cattle and cause liver cancer, jaundice and internal bleeding in humans. The mold’s high toxicity means that crops with just 20 parts per billion–about 100 kernels in a truckload of corn–are not even allowed to cross state lines. As a result, the U.S. agricultural industry typically suffers an average of $190 million in losses due to aspergillus each year.
But 2012 was unusual. For example, in 2011 about 8% of Missouri’s corn crop was affected with this mold. In 2012, that number rose to about 50%, rendering almost half of the year’s corn crop unfit for consumption. In a year that also saw a compromised corn harvest as a result of drought, that’s especially bad news.
Charles Woloshuk, a botanist and plant pathologist at Purdue University, told Scientific American, “We have a big aflatoxin problem. There are loads of corn coming to the [grain] elevators that have been rejected.”
Scientists have found that aflatoxin likes hot, dry climates. So, while drought doesn’t create the mold, it certainly helps to spread it faster. The drought of 2012 is not yet over, so we can expect to see more aflatoxin on crops in 2013. With temperatures predicted to rise and increasing frequency of droughts in the future, aflatoxin is not likely to go away.
“It’s really a climate variable issue,” says Barbara Stinson, founding and senior partner of Meridian Institute, a public policy organization. “We’re probably looking at an increase in aflatoxin as a result of that.”
There is strict international legislation in place to prevent human poisoning from aflatoxin, known as aflatoxicosis. But farmers are allowed to mix contaminated crops with uncontaminated ones in order to dilute the mold to acceptable levels. And in developing countries, many farmers don’t have the means for effective monitoring or testing of their crops. As a result, there are cases of aflatoxicosis surfacing regularly. The toxin is also buoyed by Hepatitis B, so in poorer nations where that disease is also common, the aflatoxin exposure speeds liver failure and sometimes liver cancer. In 2008, the World Cancer Research Fund International ranked liver cancer as the sixth most common cancer in humans.
Even destroying the affected crops is an ordeal. In many cases it is not even safe to incinerate it because the spores can become airborne and be inhaled.
The increase in this poisonous mold is affecting food security and food supply worldwide. Sustainable America has a stated goal to increase food availability in America 50% by 2030. We plan to do this by increasing production of food while at the same time decreasing food waste. With the generally accepted understanding that droughts and extreme weather will continue to affect worldwide food production, we need to develop creative and alternative ways to grow more food. Urban farming and diversified crop rotations are just some of the potential solutions to the problem of food availability in America.