MyToolBox – Smart, Integrated Mycotoxin Management
What if there were a tool to help silo managers predict the occurrence of mycotoxins in their storage facilities, analyze relevant weather data, repurpose contaminated crops, and better understand regulations? As it turns out, there is such a tool currently under development: the MyToolBox project. Guest authors Birgit Poschmaier and Rudolf Krska explain.
The European Union has estimated that 5-10% of worldwide crop production is lost because of mycotoxin contamination.1 These losses transform into high financial burdens not only because of yield and total crop losses, but also because of inspection and analytical costs. Extreme weather events further complicate the global mycotoxin landscape, requiring forecasting and detection methods to adapt to this new and changing reality. While innovative solutions are essential to meet these new challenges, integrating existing know-how and expertise is a key step for stakeholders along the food and feed chain to sustainably tackle the mycotoxin problem. This is the very essence of a large-scale project now funded by the European Commission: the MyToolBox project (www.mytoolbox.eu) (Grant Agreement No. 678012).
Integrating users’ needs into an online decision support platform
Decades of research has shown tremendous progress in detecting mycotoxins all along the production chain, from raw materials to the food we consume. Naturally, methods to reduce the risk of mycotoxin contamination have been developed and put into practice. These range from crop management to sampling, storage and processing. Eventually, regulations have come to reflect much of this knowledge, albeit in a language and format difficult to understand and navigate in.
MyToolBox transforms this knowledge into easily understandable text that reflects state-of-the-art data gathering techniques: Instead of navigating through lists of mycotoxins and how to manage them in various crops, MyToolBox users can select the crop first and then explore how to limit mycotoxin contamination at different stages of production. For example, the EU‘s maximum limits of deoxynivalenol (DON) in wheat flour used for further processing is different from the maximum limit of DON in raw wheat used for further processing.
Additionally, the permissible DON concentration in wheat intended for human consumption is lower than that of wheat intended for animal feed. The MyToolBox e-platform reverses this focus by putting the crop first, allowing the user to follow each processing step and the associated maximum mycotoxin contaminations allowed – aided by novel insights resulting from dedicated experiments. Besides transforming existing information into easily understandable formats, MyToolBox strives to support end-users in their decision-making. It has thus developed real-time decision-supporting tools for farmers and silo managers, allowing them to react quickly to potential mycotoxin threats.
This article was published in Spot On #11
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User-friendly mycotoxin management for farmers
In Europe, the most prevalent mycotoxins for wheat are DON and zearalenone (ZEN), which are generally produced by Fusarium spp. fungi. For maize, the most frequent mycotoxins are fumonisins (FUM) and aflatoxins (AF), generally produced by the Fusarium and Aspergillus fungi, respectively. Regardless of the availability of vulnerable hosts or crops, fungi development and toxin production largely depend on weather parameters such as temperature and humidity. For example, it is well known that warm temperatures and rain during the flowering of maize increases the risk of aflatoxin contamination in the crop. MyToolBox provides a set of recommendations for farmers raising wheat, maize, barley and oats, ranging from crop debris management and crop rotation to the use of biopesticides and resistant cultivars and real-time support during the growing season.
The real-time support tool builds on forecasting models connected to weather stations throughout Europe. In MyToolBox, a farmer, for example, can identify a field, select the closest weather station, and put in basic crop data such as a date to sow. Upon providing minimal updates, such as the use of pesticides or weeding, the farmer will then receive a risk map of the field, indicating a low (green), medium (amber) or high (red) risk of mycotoxin contamination in the crop. Counter-measures to reduce this risk, or options on how to handle contaminated material, can then be found in MyToolBox; the tool provides both warnings as well as recommendations.
As part of the project, MyToolBox tested the effectiveness of novel biopesticides that mitigate DON contamination in wheat (UK) and oats (Norway) and of atoxigenic Aspergillus strains that curtail aflatoxins in maize in Serbia. This last method proved particularly successful in initial trials. Similar results were found for the use of locally derived atoxigenic Aspergillus strains in some states in Africa. While economic efficiency is subject to further improvements, the effectiveness of using atoxigenic strains proved to be a valuable method to tackle aflatoxin contamination in maize in Europe.
Making use of highly contaminated crops
If contamination levels exceed all maximum levels, even the one for feed, alternative use options were tested to repurpose what would otherwise be unusable crops. Pilot scale experiments showed that recombinant enzymes could simultaneously degrade up to 100% and 90% of FB1 and ZEN, respectively. Biotransformation was confirmed by formation of the non-toxic degradation products hydrolyzed FB1 and hydrolyzed ZEN. On the other hand, biogas production proved to be a sensible way to use highly contaminated wheat and maize: although methane production was slightly delayed, no significant differences in methane yield could be found between highly and minimally contaminated substrate; the mycotoxin contamination of digestate was below the LOD. These results have been integrated into the MyToolBox e-platform to inform plant managers, feed production managers and bioethanol/biogas plant managers alike.
Alarm system for silo monitoring
Aside from farmers, silo managers also have to guard the safety of their crops, as storage fungi can spread quickly and contaminate the stored grain with mycotoxins. Current practice in silo management is to measure temperature and relative humidity, either periodically or remotely. As part of the MyToolBox project, sensors have been developed that use CO2 as an early-warning parameter. By including CO2 in the prediction model, potential contamination can be predicted three to five days earlier than by using only temperature-sensitive sensors; this allows for a quicker reaction to the threat of contamination. The MyToolBox sensors will alert the user about the potential increase of ZEN (for stored wheat) and aflatoxin (for stored maize) closest to the sensor nodes in the silo, allowing the user to pinpoint the contamination threat to a specific location in the silo.
Making the user count
Beyond the real-time forecasting of mycotoxins in fields and silos, a group of potential end-users in the Netherlands, Serbia, Italy, UK, Turkey and Norway were asked for their feedback on an integrated mycotoxin management platform. To achieve maximum response, a strong dissemination plan was followed that included the sharing of results in scientific communities and programs to reach out to industries and end-users through targeted stakeholder workshops. We also made use of presentations at fairs and conferences and connections with other networks and projects (such as MycoKey and ISM) in Europe and China. This helped us not only to produce a user-friendly platform filled with actionable information for stakeholders, but also to aid in risk assessment.
Unlike previous projects and standards, the MyToolBox project leverages a fully integrated multi-actor approach with a high degree of involvement from the end-user to address problems stemming from mycotoxins along the food and feed chain. Reduced mycotoxin risks in crops will result in reduced losses along the food chain. By providing traceable information along the supply chain using mainstream ICT technology, MyToolBox stands to make a substantial contribution to the health, safety and well-being of consumers.