A new study found that extreme weather events may increase the toxicity in some food crops as the plants release more toxic chemicals in their fight to survive.
Researchers at the United Nations Environment Programme noted that the most toxic crops are wheat and corn. The good news is that these toxins have a negative impact on people’s and livestock’s health only if they are consumed for a long time.
Jacqueline McGlade, co-autor of the study, explained that crops respond to drought and rising temperatures just like animals and humans do under a lot of stress. If they aren’t stressed, crops can break down nitrates in the soil into proteins and aminoacids.
But in dry years, this conversion can be stalled so the plants become laden with nitrates which are toxic to the human body. Nitrates hamper red blood cell’s ability of delivering precious oxygen to cells and tissues in living organisms, experts explained.
But corn and wheat are not the only crops that can be affected by extreme weather events. Soybean, barley, sorghum and millet are also at risk. Furthermore, if after a prolonged drought plants get too much rainfall, they tend to develop very rapidly and accumulate large amounts of hydrogen cyanide in the process.
The chemical compound can disturb oxygen flow within the human body as well, so large amounts of it were used in biological warfare. The toxin can have life-long effects even after a short exposure.
The crops that are more likely to accumulate hydrogen cyanide in their tissue are corn, flax, cassava and sorghum. UNEP scientists reported that there were cases of poisoning with both chemical compounds in Africa and Philippines.
In Africa, two Kenyan children died because of the poisoning after consuming hydrogen cyanide-laden cassava. Scientists believe that the edible root became toxic after the extreme rainfall events in that summer.
Additionally, plants can develop also a special type of mold that ups the risk of liver damage, blindness and cancer in humans and animals alike. The poisonous molds, also known as aflatoxins, can stunt babies’ growth within their mothers’ wombs too.
Aflatoxins reportedly affect the food stock of about 4.5 billion people in the developing world, UNEP researchers noted. And the team believes that the numbers may be even higher as many cases of poisoning go unreported.
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