Michael Hauser • Opinion

Technologies matter, but aflatoxin is also a public opinion issue

Kenya has become a good example of how public opinion could become equally important as science when it comes to aflatoxin mitigating technologies.

Aflatoxin in cereals, nuts, and milk products has serious negative implications for public health. The metabolites of aspergillus flavus are associated with liver cancer and stunted growth in humans (although the latter remains contested). It’s a particular issue in the tropical and subtropical environments across Africa – especially in the drylands, but the problem also exists in Southern Europe and the USA.

Managing aflatoxin in foods is a huge challenge requiring a strict quality management system from production to consumption. If such a system is not in place aflatoxin remains undetected and represents the main cause of chronic exposure. In most parts of Africa (and I argue elsewhere too), the mere existence of aflatoxins in food is unknown to the public. Research into technologies to mitigate aflatoxin contamination is therefore critically important–as is public information about the existence of aflatoxin and risks related to exposure. Along with universities and research institutes in the countries affected, the CGIAR is one of the main investors when it comes to developing technological remedies to aflatoxin.

But as I argue in this blog post, investments in technologies are insufficient to transition the food system into an aflatoxin-safe state of affairs. There are many non-technical issues society must address, first and foremost, awareness among all actors along the value chain. Here I limit myself to public opinion – I consider it a key determinant for system change.

Why public opinion matters

Public opinion significantly drives politics and policies in many countries. While markets, restaurants, and other community areas are spaces that contribute to the formation of public opinions, these days it’s the media and especially social media that influence how people develop a position on an issue.

For obvious reasons, public opinions shape opinions in the policy space, and as a consequence, public policy. Without going into detail here, we can safely say that accountability, the level of democracy at play in institutions and the structure of electoral systems all play an important role in how public opinions are translated into public policies.

In the realm of aflatoxin management, one avoids the emergence of a public opinions. The reason is simple: aflatoxin is a particularly serious issue in key commodities, including maize, to some extent small grains, and groundnuts. These commodities are key to national food security in many African countries, and the markets for them are maintained in a fragile equilibrium. The link between a certain public opinion, national food security and political stability can’t be overemphasised.

How middle-class helps

As the middle-class grows in many African countries and in Asia, sustainability and health becomes more important – because people of a certain income level demand a higher quality of life. Coupled with democratising public institutions, the public discourse is likely to change. For aflatoxin management, this is actually good news. More and more exposure to the issue of aflatoxin contamination in food leads to greater critical debate and increasing demands for food safety, which in turn give rise to political reforms.

Kenya is a good example of a case where a burgeoning middle-class has started asking more questions about food safety, sustainability and planetary boundaries. In 2019, Kenya experienced a couple of food scandals related to meat production. Now maize and groundnuts have shaken up society as aflatoxin has suddenly become a part of the public conversation, and the issue is gaining traction in mass media.

At some point in the most recent aflatoxin debate, the public opinion bounced from an ‘unknown-unknown’ (what I don’t know does not concern me’) to a ‘known-unknown’ state (i.e. I should be concerned but lack information), and this created fear and uncertainty among many consumers. Then the Kenyan Bureau of standards enforced food safety standards and took Maize flour and groundnuts brands exceeding the aflatoxin limits temporarily from the shelves.

Public opinion alone won’t do it

Public opinion cannot be the sole factor that shapes policy. Sometimes invalid opinions or ideas become popular, and this can lead to misinformation and public health risks. There is a role of the state and governments to safeguard public health, nutrition and food safety independent of public opinion.

Way forward

The coming years in Kenya as well as in other countries with a rising middle-income population are likely to see a strengthening of consumer agency, i.e. increasing interest, power and the willingness to demand the right the safe food. Coupled with shifts towards more democratic institutions accountable to voters, it’s also likely to see more responsive actions by public organisations in mitigating aflatoxins in the food chain.

This increasing scrutiny of food safety at a broad scale is a fascinating research area. For example, we know little about the shape and scale of public opinion in terms of how it contributes to public food safety policy change. Also, the line between concern and panic is thin. Hence, how can society manage a transition to addressing aflatoxins more seriously, without increasing uncertainty and threatening the thin and fragile equilibrium that exists in many states?

My colleague François Stepman at ICARDA wrote about the need for social science to step up in this area. And tactically, critical social science could help putting aflatoxin measures in place, and help pave the way for public policy change through changing public opinion. Together with universities, the CGIAR can play a crucial role in addressing these issues.