A scientist has warned that climate change will prove disastrous for crops and can actually lead to "killer cornflakes" that carry a potent liver toxin.
Addressing 10th World Congress on Environmental Health in Brisbane, Lisa Bricknell, environmental health researcher of Central Queensland University (CQU) said that the effects of the toxins, called mycotoxins, have been known since the Middle Ages when rye bread contaminated with ergot fungus was a staple part of the European diet.
"People started suffering mass hallucinations, manic depression, gangrene, abortions, reduced fertility and painful, convulsive death. The rye bread, which was known as the staff of life, quickly became known as the sceptre of death," News.com.au quoted Bricknell, as saying.
She indicated that the damage did not result from a single exposure; instead it was done because of a number of small doses of the toxins continuously over a long period of time.
The food chain can have mycotoxins owing to the fungal infection of crops in the field or in storage, either by being eaten directly by humans, or by being used as livestock feed.
In Australia, the most important group of mycotoxins in maize is aflatoxins and Bricknell said that their spread was possible in right kind of temperature and moisture conditions and it could also affect crops including maize and peanuts and in some milk, dried milk products and some spices.
She added that recently, high levels of aflatoxin outbreaks have occurred in Australian crops. In addition, global warming may act as a new threat to food safety, with temperatures expected to rise and rainfall drop in inland areas of the eastern states.
"Rainfall is correlated with aflatoxin contamination, so not only do these conditions favour aflatoxin contamination but they also induce plant stress, which is going to make our plants more susceptible to contamination," said Bricknell.
This may lead to Australian grain-growing areas to turn unviable, leading the country to import more maize and maize-based food products in order to meet the growing demand.
"In a situation of climate change, if we are importing more products and imported products are not regulated ... we can also expect that other countries may be experiencing similar problems with increased contamination. While killer cornflakes may not precisely be around the corner, we do have potential for increasing aflatoxin exposure," said Bricknell.
She added: "We need to investigate risk management for maize production and we need to undertake careful monitoring of food products coming into our country."