MANHATTAN, Kan. – For most consumers, mold on food may seem like a small inconvenience. Cut it off or throw it away and get something else.

But on the scale of global food production, it’s a multi-billion-dollar headache, one that means many people – and even entire communities – will go hungry or become sick.

“The global community has made great strides in improving food security over the past decades,” said Jagger Harvey, director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss (PHL) at Kansas State University. “A lot more people have been lifted out of poverty globally – about a billion people.”

But, he added, “We’re getting a lot more information about things that could really be impacting people, even when they have sufficient food.”

One of those “things” is a group of toxins produced by fungi in the environment, otherwise known as mycotoxins. At very high levels, people could die even from short-term exposure, and many of the toxins found in food are carcinogens.

Mycotoxins can appear in the food chain as a result of a fungal infection in crops, caused by weather or other environmental conditions. Infected crops aren’t necessarily going to reach the world’s food supply; when discovered, they can be thrown away or safely treated for non-human uses, such as livestock feed.

“These toxins are predicted to contaminate potentially a quarter of the global food supply, putting 4.5 billion people at risk. It’s a huge issue,” Harvey said.

Harvey noted that in the countries he has worked in, toxins can cause stunting in children, a problem caused by poor nutrition in early childhood. The World Health Organization reports that approximately 155 million children under age 5 suffer from stunting, which often leads to difficulties learning in school and reduced earning as adults.

“Overall, the presence of toxins in food keeps people, communities and nations from realizing their full, vibrant potential,” said Harvey, whose lab focuses its work in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana and Guatemala.

Through Kansas State’s PHL lab, Harvey is leading a project that is looking at ways to reduce food loss and human health issues due to toxins. Research focuses on pre- and post-harvest issues, such as transportation, storage and shelf life of foods.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done to understand global distribution and what can be done about them, but there’s a lot of different programs that are improving agricultural practices, breeding for less susceptible varieties of different crops, and understanding what we can do with contaminated grains to use them safely as feed for animals,” which are not affected negatively by the toxins, Harvey said.

“These toxins can be a major issue overseas and in the U.S.,” he added. “Our program as well as others are working to talk with policymakers, the private sector, regulators, national systems, universities, civil society and others to come up with a collective approach to uncovering the scope and dynamics of this problem. Then, we will work together aggressively and impatiently to make as rapid strides as possible to reduce the incidence of these toxins in food.”

A recent study from Michigan indicated that U.S. corn production losses due to one particular toxin – aflatoxin – can reach $1.68 billion in a bad year. But even in years when the environment is not as conducive to mold growth, corn losses due to aflatoxin often reach $52 million in the U.S.

“What that tells us is that even in the U.S., it can be a huge problem, and that’s just in production, much less in other parts of the chain,” Harvey said.

He noted that the incidence of aflatoxin and other toxins in Kansas and other states varies from year to year.

“But in some of the countries we’re working in, it tends to be a problem every year,” Harvey said. “(In) surveys of toxin exposure in some of these countries, we’re finding that a lot of people are being exposed to it, and such factors as gender, age and socioeconomic status do not matter.”

In one PHL lab project, Harvey has worked with breeders in East Africa to screen for varieties that will accumulate less toxin. The project works with farmers to do on-farm surveys to develop practices that will reduce the risk of fungus on crops.

Faculty in Harvey’s lab are also working with groups that are addressing storage issues, and studying soil profiles because toxins can often be left in the soil and infect future plants.

Learn more about Kansas State University’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss at www.ksu.edu/phl.