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 Friday, 10 January, 2003, 16:15 GMT
'Good fungus' fights African poisons
Measuring an African baby (Pic: IITA)
Many Africans babies are underweight

Scientists in Africa are preparing a bold farming experiment which could improve food safety for millions of people living in tropical areas.

Research shows that as many as 99% of African children in some areas carry debilitating toxins in their blood caused by a fungus which grows in warm, humid conditions, on corn and peanuts.

This project will help reduce aflatoxins in African staple crops and make food safer to eat

Dr Ranajit Bandyopadhyay, IITA
Scientists at the Nigeria-based International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) say the experiment, due to start in the growing season which begins in a few weeks' time, is to replace this dangerous fungus, which is linked to stunted child growth, by establishing a safer strain of fungus - a process they call "Good Fungus For Bad".

The alarming statistics that associate Africans' daily food intake with stunted child growth are a reminder that some tropical regions are inherently unhealthy.

Staple foods

While headline-grabbing wars and bad leadership are often blamed for Africa's underdevelopment, the tropical environment, entirely outside the control of African governments, can be just as important.

Toxic chemicals known as aflatoxins are produced by fungus associated with common African foods.

Fungus on maize (Pic: IITA)
The fungus lives on staple foods such as maize
They are known to cause liver cancer and blood diseases and are strongly linked to stunted growth in children.

The experiment will introduce a benign fungus and have it outgrow - and exclude - the dangerous one.

"This project will help reduce aflatoxins in African staple crops and make food safer to eat," says Dr Ranajit Bandyopadhyay, one of the research team leaders.

Military coups and famines may dominate the news from Africa, but for many Africans the challenge of avoiding poisons that grow naturally on their food is just as serious.

See also:

18 Feb 01 | Africa
27 Nov 02 | Country profiles
09 Jan 03 | Africa
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