Brief #2: Mold on Sorghum
Mold is universal. Reactions to it are not.
In any typical American kitchen, mold on bread means it is time to buy a new loaf
of bread. In Africa, mold on grains means less appetizing food for the family. But hey, at
least they won’t starve.
Mold, a common fungus, can destroy entire fields of crops and, consequentially,
entire communities of lives.
INTSORMIL scientists are working with farmers in Africa and the United States
to determine ways to avoid mold growth and spread by increasing sorghum and millet
resistance to mold.
Mold thrives in dark and damp places. But what you see is not always what you
get. Mold produces spores, which travel across fields through the air, water or animals.
These spores travel until they reach other areas with ideal conditions for growth.
After crops are harvested in fields, the fungi and spores survive in the soil and
crop residue according to Amy Ziems, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln
who specializes in mold on crops.
No traditional farming practices deal with fungi because most traditional farming
is done on a smaller scale, which means fewer problems with pests and disease according
to John Leslie, an INTSORMIL scientist and plant pathologist at Kansas State University.
“You still end up with mycotoxins,” said Leslie. “But even then, the fungi to
make the toxins don’t grow as much.”
Mold produces the poisonous molecules called mycotoxins. Mycotoxins affect 25
percent of the world’s food crops, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of
the United Nations.
These mycotoxins can be fatal for humans and animals but for African
subsistence farmers, spoiled crops may be the only option.
“A lot of times what will happen is there will be a grain trader that will come to
the village and they’ll be interested in buying grain that the farmers have harvested,” said
Leslie. “But what kind of grain do you think the trader wants to buy? He wants to buy the
good stuff. So the farmer needs cash, he sells him the good stuff. And what do you think
he lives on? The bad stuff.”
It might seem like these African farmers have no concern for personal health, but
it is a question of two paths to the same end according to Leslie. If the farmer eats the
spoiled grain, he might get cancer within the next couple years. If the farmer does not eat
the spoiled grain, he might die of starvation before cancer becomes an issue.
“It doesn’t matter if you might get cancer in twenty years if you’re going to be
dead next week,” said Leslie.