EU initiative comes up with ‘smart’ way to tackle mycotoxins in crops

By Jane Byrne contact

- Last updated on GMT

© istock.com/rakim-
© istock.com/rakim-

Related tags: European union

A four-year, €5m backed EU project is looking to create a cloud-based platform that provides real-time, customized advice about mycotoxins in order to achieve crop contamination reductions of between 20 and 90%. 

Called MyToolBox, the initiative, which is funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, involves a multidisciplinary team of scientists, engineers and IT specialists as well as policymaker representatives, academic and industry partners.

“We had a lot of demand from companies to participate in this project, industry makes up 40% of the consortium. There is huge interest out there in finding innovative ways of preventing and controlling mycotoxin contamination of crops,”​ said coordinator, Professor Rudi Krska of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) in Vienna.

The EU produces yearly about 133 million tons (Mt) of wheat, 68Mt of maize and 8Mt of oats. Mycotoxin contamination results in €1.2 to €2.4bn in lost income for wheat alone in the EU, and a reduction in such losses of only 1% would save somewhere between €12 to 24m, said the research partners.

Krska told FeedNavigator the initiative is not about reinventing the wheel: “MyToolBox is about further developing the knowledge that exists around the monitoring and reduction of mycotoxins and transferring that data to farmers and other feed and food stakeholders in a way that is accessible.”

The interactive platform, to be developed for smart phones and tablets, will guide the end user to the most effective measures to reduce biological contamination in crops, said Krska.

It will provide the necessary intelligence to ensure these measures take into account the prevailing conditions such as geographical location, weather conditions, land-use, crop management, storage and intended end use of crops. “We expect a pilot version to be ready by 2019 and the final toolbox to be available in 2020,”​ said Krska. 

MyToolBox project approach
© mytoolbox

Pre and post-harvest mitigation strategies

Crop losses using existing practices will be compared with crop losses after novel pre-harvest interventions including investigation of genetic resistance to fungal infection, the use of novel bio-pesticides — there is an organic farming component within the project — and the development of forecasting models to predict mycotoxin contamination.

“We will be looking at pre and post-harvest mitigation strategies. We aim to inform farm level decision making on crop management actions. Farmers can decide when best to apply fungicides or bio-pesticides or they can decide to harvest earlier or later based on real-time information,”​ continued Krska.

Research into post-harvest measures including real-time monitoring during storage, innovative sorting of crops using vision-technology and novel milling technology will enable cereals with higher mycotoxin levels to be processed without breaching regulatory limits in finished products, he said.

Along with grains, another goal of the consortium is to reduce mycotoxin contamination of peanuts and dried figs.

Legislative consequences

Krska said the regulatory side will feature large in the MyToolBox project, which is a response to a call launched by the EU Commission in 2013.

Representatives of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), DG Sante and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN are on board as advisors. We expect to have constant dialogue with them throughout the course of the project on the potential implications for EU regulation on mycotoxins arising out of our findings,”​ said Krska.

11 countries are participating in the effort, including China.

The collaboration with Chinese institutions such as the Chinese Academy of Agriculture Sciences (CAAS) is aimed at establishing a sustainable cooperation in mycotoxin research between the EU and China, explained Krska.

Reduction of mycotoxins in DDGS  

Feed additive firm, Biomin, is also involved in the consortium.

Dr Gerd Schatzmayr, director, Biomin Research Center, said the company is involved in further testing of its purified enzymes, in the frame of the MyToolBox project, in terms of their ability to diminish the often high occurrence of mycotoxins in the production of biofuels and fermentation by-products such as distiller's dried grains with solubles (DDGS), used in livestock feed.

It is working with German bioethanol producer, Südzucker, to carry out the research. “We have already started this analysis in the lab, we plan to scale up to pilot plant level evaluation within a year,” ​said Schatzmayr.

He said the hope is the bioethanol industry may see a revenue boost and livestock producers could see animal health and performance improvements due to higher quality DDGS as a result of lower mycotoxin contamination.

Registration of mycotoxin detoxifiers

A number of major agricultural markets, such as China, currently have no framework in place to provide guidelines for mycotoxin deactivation products such as feed additives.

So Schatzmayr said Biomin will deploy its extensive know-how in mycotoxin biomarker analysis — aflatoxins and fumonisins in particular— to inform feeding trials to be conducted in China as part of a broader interest in the development of such regulations.

He told us: “Unlike in the EU, there is no general regulation for mycotoxin detoxifiers in China. The registration process there is on a case by case basis, which means that Chinese authorities are testing feed additives according to their relevant claims. However, the lack of specific regulation delays the entire registration process.

The cooperation within MyToolBox should help to establish a common approach on how to prove the efficacy of mycotoxin deactivators in China in the future.

From a scientific point of view, specific biomarker analysis in animals such as mycotoxins in faeces, urine, or plasma, for example, will play a crucial role in determining the efficacy of such products.”

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