Iowa Grain Quality Initiative Begins Life-Saving Research in Rwanda

March 20, 2017

RwandaIowa State University Extension and Outreach’s Iowa Grain Quality Initiative (IGQI) is embarking on a project in Rwanda assessing the impact of mycotoxins – toxic chemicals produced by fungi found in food crops. The program will sample and test animal feed grains in Rwanda and is slated to begin mid-March. Little research has been undertaken on this issue in Rwanda, and the hope is to gain knowledge needed to apply solutions in the future.

“I think it’s a very important study,” said Erin Bowers, mycotoxin sampling and analysis specialist and post doctorate research associate at Iowa State University. “A lot of these developing countries have a staple food, in Rwanda they eat corn every day. So when there is a problem with their corn supply, they don’t have anything to fall back on.”

Two specific classes of mycotoxins are assumed to play a large role in affecting Rwanda’s grain quality: aflatoxins and fumonisins. Low levels of these toxins cause serious health problems from either direct consumption of contaminated grain or secondary consumption through animal-sourced products. Aflatoxins, the most potent of all mycotoxins, are carcinogens that primarily affect the liver in the form of cancer or cirrhosis. In Africa, mycotoxins are believed to cause the chronic childhood stunting, immunosuppression and reproductive health issues we see today.

IGQI is concerned that aflatoxins are present in the milk supply. Aflatoxins have the ability to transfer from feed grains, through the cow, and into the milk. Only 20 parts-per-billion aflatoxin in dairy feed is permitted by the FDA.

“One part-per-billion is relatable to one second of time in 32 years,” said Bowers. “In other terms, it is the equivalent of one kernel of corn in a 45-foot-high, 16-foot-diameter silo.”

Kizito Nishime, Iowa State Ph.D. student from Rwanda, will be traveling back to his home country mid-March to oversee the sampling process. Over 2,500 samples of grain feed will be collected in two phases – phase one starting in the coming weeks and phase two starting mid-June.

The sample analysis will take place at the University of Rwanda in Kigali. There, researchers will analyze the level of mycotoxins in the animal feed ingredients. The project is slated to conclude by the end of the year, and Nishimwe is hopeful that the information will bring positive change in his country.

“I get to do something good for my country,” said Nishimwe. “The issue of mycotoxins is very serious. Once we have a baseline of mycotoxin contamination, we can start proposing solutions to policy makers and farmers.”

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), mycotoxins contaminate a quarter of the world’s agriculture products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets maximum tolerance levels in the United States, but developing countries like Rwanda do not have the infrastructure or standards to guarantee any degree of mycotoxin-safe products.
Dirk Maier, grain handling and storage specialist and principal investigator on this project, is proud of the impact IGQI is able to have on the world.

“Our label is ‘Iowa Grain Quality Initiative’ but it’s not just for Iowa,” said Maier. “We have the largest concentration of grain quality expertise in any university at this point in time. What we’re doing here can literally serve states in the region, and countries beyond.”