Warning over disposal of toxic maize

People have to borrow cereals such as maize.
(Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN)

The plan by the Kenya National Cereals and Produce Board to buy contaminated maize from farmers must also ensure the grain is properly destroyed and does not find its way back to the market, agricultural and environmental experts warn.

The plan follows a government decision to buy the maize, which contains aflotoxins, to prevent its consumption. It followed an alert issued on 10 May that aflatoxin had been found in maize samples from Eastern and Coast provinces.

"Whichever way the disposal is carried out, care should be taken to ensure the contaminated maize does not enter the food chain in any form," an agricultural researcher said. "There are several ways of disposal; we have chemical decontamination - which is expensive and not yet available in the country - and conversion of the maize to industrial use, such as glue, starch or methylated spirit."

Agricultural officials estimate that at least 300,000 bags out of four million could be contaminated, following poor handling that resulted in a high moisture content in the grains.

Consumption of such maize, they say, could lead to aflatoxicosis. Since 2004, at least 200 people have died across Kenya after eating aflatoxin-infected maize, according to health and agricultural officials. Its symptoms include jaundice, fever, abdominal swelling, vomiting, swollen feet or hands and diarrhea. The condition can cause neurological impairment and stunted growth.

"Lack of proper handling from harvesting, drying, and preparation for shelling to storage, predisposes the grain to fungal attack," Joseph Ngetich, the deputy director of agriculture in charge of the plant protection services division, told IRIN on 26 May.

"If the maize is shelled by beating, the result could be a lot of broken grain, and if it is not stored in bags made of natural fibre and in well-aerated storage, the grain is again predisposed to fungal attack."

Ngetich said the stored maize should be treated with the adequate pesticides to prevent insect attacks, which could also lead to aflatoxin contamination.

Maize field - for generic use

Unlike this healthy maize crop (above), the crop planted in the larger Nakuru area in the Rift Valley has become stunted and dry
Wikimedia Commons
Maize field - for generic use
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Massive crop failure in "grain basket" ...
Maize field - for generic use

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A maize field: Agricultural officials estimate that at least 300,000 bags out of four million recently harvested could be contaminated (file photo)

"Care should be taken so that the maize does not get contaminated even before storage; in fact, without laboratory testing, it is difficult to tell with the naked eye the clean maize from the contaminated one," he said. "It is possible to have contaminated but clean-looking maize and to have mouldy-looking maize that is not contaminated."

Funding set aside

On 22 May, Kareke Mbiuki, assistant minister for agriculture, said the government had set aside Ksh2 billion (US$26 million) to buy suspected bad maize in Eastern province.

The agricultural researcher, who requested anonymity, told IRIN: "The only way out is to get all the contaminated maize, [assess] the extent of contamination and decide what should be declared fit for human consumption, what can be used in formulation of animal feeds and what can go to industrial use. The highly contaminated maize should be destroyed through incineration."

Officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and those from the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services have taken samples from maize in the affected areas and are analyzing them to determine the extent of contamination.

A 6 May report, compiled by the National Cereals and Produce Board, indicated that out of 1,600,000, 90kg bags the government purchased in Eastern and Coastal areas, 103,000 bags had "very high levels" of aflatoxin.

According to February 2010 Ministry of Agriculture projections, a harvest of 4.3 million bags from Eastern province and about 6.7 million bags for the whole country was expected between February and April.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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