New research finds harmful fungi fusarium mycotoxins present in European wheat

23 December 2022 | Muriel Cozier

‘We don’t know what’s causing the increase in fusarium mycotoxins, which is why we need more research […]’

A study led by researchers at the University of Bath, in collaboration with a team at the University of Exeter, UK, has concluded that almost half of wheat crops across Europe are being impacted by fungal infection that gives rise to harmful toxins.

A fungus that causes fusarium head blight in wheat, and other cereals, is responsible for the production of mycotoxins, which lead to vomiting and other gastrointestinal problems in humans and livestock. Mycotoxins also impact farmers, as they reduce the value of the grain produced. Wheat is a key element of the global diet, providing some 18% of total calories consumed. The researchers said that concerns for both health and global food supplies were the driver for their study.

The study Emerging Health Threat and cost of Fusarium mycotoxins in European wheat, published in the journal Nature food looked at 10 years’ worth of the largest datasets available from governments and agribusiness, both of which monitor fusarium mycotoxins in wheat grain entering the food and animal feed supply chains. The researchers found that mycotoxins were present in every European country. Half of the European wheat intended for human consumption contained mycotoxin, while in the UK this rose to 70%.

While there are legal limits on fusarium mycotoxin contamination levels in wheat for human consumption, the researchers say that the ubiquity of mycotoxins is a concern, as the effect of constant, low-level exposure to the toxin in the diet over a lifetime is unknown.

The team also noted that there were ‘worryingly high levels’ of fusarium mycotoxin in wheat fed to livestock, as wheat contaminated beyond a certain threshold is diverted from human food to animal consumption, shifting the health problem to livestock.

Dr Neil Brown, Molecular Fungal Biologist and BBSRC Future Leader Fellow/Lecturer at the University of Bath said: ‘We must remember that wheat is a hugely important global crop, so it’s essential for us to maintain high yields along with safe food production – not least because of climate change, and now the war in Ukraine (the world’s fourth largest exporter of wheat), are already impacting on wheat yields and grain prices.’

The researchers also noted that in the Mediterranean, mycotoxin levels in high-disease years have become more severe since 2010. ‘We don’t know what’s causing the increase in Fusarium mycotoxins, which is why we need more research, but we suspect that changes in farming (such as soil preservation practices that provide a home for the Fusarium fungus) and climate change, are playing an important role,’ said Louise Johns, a PhD Student in Dr Brown’s research group.

The research team hopes that by exposing the scale of the fusarium mycotoxin problem, their study will highlight the importance of controlling mycotoxins and stimulate more research.

SCI will be hosting the Innovation in Crop Protection towards Sustainable Agriculture event on 18 May 2023. Speakers from leading organisations including BASF, Bayer and Imperial College London will be sharing perspectives on this important area.

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