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Endowed Scholar Researches Link Between Crop Toxins and African Children’s Nutrition

Groundnuts–known as peanuts in the U.S.–for sale in a local market in Nampula Province. Groundnuts typically have high levels of aflatoxins.

Arriving in Mozambique, a southern African country on the coast of the Indian Ocean, Amy Byrne contemplated the images of daily life in this coastal southern African country.

“What struck me most,” she said, “was the presence everywhere of people on the move, usually on foot, throughout the country. There were people carrying food, women carrying children, children with children on their backs, and so many different kinds of food.”

Byrne, a graduate student at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and Tufts School of Medicine, is the seventh Aid for Africa Endowed Scholar to be funded through the Aid for Africa Endowment for Food and Sustainable Agriculture.

Byrne’s interest in food and children was not surprising. The reason for Byrne’s six-week trip to Mozambique this summer was to initiate research on the effects of aflatoxin, a fungi that contaminates crops, on children’s nutrition. Aflatoxins occur naturally or during storage in crops such as maize and groundnuts, which are staple crops that are widely consumed in the country.

“The research will try to determine if areas of the country with higher levels of aflatoxin are associated with higher levels of stunting in young children,” she said.

As part of the field team, Byrne traveled to five districts in Nampula Province, where aflatoxin levels are high, to meet and work with district health officials and staff members from local health centers as well as members of selected households who will participate in the study.

Aid for Africa Scholar Amy Byrne and local health activists in Nampula Province, ask mother about her family’s diet and food habits .

“We will start with a household questionnaire about nutrition and diet habits and take height and weight information and blood samples from children under five,” she said.

In addition to pretesting questions and refining the questionnaire, Byrne said that she also collected GPS coordinates and other information of interest from local government health officials and medical personnel. She and a colleague created an integrated map and field guide for the team that will collect the data.

The research is a project of Tufts University’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Nutrition and is being undertaken in consultation with Mozambique’s Lúrio University and Association for Nutrition and Food Security. Byrne said that she also worked with the Institute of Health and the Institute of Statistics and other local and international nongovernmental organizations.

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Nutrition at Tufts University undertakes research to create large and lasting improvements to maternal and child health through integrated interventions of agriculture, nutrition and health. The Lab receives funding from the US Agency for International Development.

Byrne is combining her studies of nutrition and agriculture with a degree in public health. She said that her work in Mozambique brought into focus the links between nutrition, agriculture and public health.

“With good information on food and agriculture practices, you can leverage public health programs over time to meet long-term needs, “she said.

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