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Heavy metals in baby food: Why innovation is the answer to food safety challenges

March 12, 2021

Editor’s note: Xuemei Germaine is the founder and CEO of MicroGen Biotech, based in Carlow, Ireland. MicroGen Biotech’s microbiome technology blocks the uptake of heavy metals by crops to improve food safety. The views expressed in this guest article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of AFN.

Last month, a US Congressional committee issued a report on dangerous levels of heavy metals — including arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury — in baby food.

The consequences of heavy metals in stunting brain development are well documented. This is a food safety issue with long term implications, and it’s one that every major news outlet in the US has been reporting on recently. Naturally, this has led to multiple lawsuits against companies who make and sell baby food.

The problem is that heavy metals in food cannot simply be regulated away. Heavy metal uptake by plants must be innovated away.

Why? Contrary to what some assume, heavy metals are not just the result of industrial activities in a given region, or phosphate fertilizers on farm ground. Heavy metals are naturally occurring in soil, water, and air.

There are four dynamics to be considered when thinking about how the world might move forward tackling this problem:

1. Complexity of food safety as an issue

As with many elements of food safety, a primary challenge is that food is produced in extremely complex environments where many factors are simultaneously at play – including weather, wildlife, farm management practices, water sources, soil types, and so on.

2. Value proposition for consumers and farmers

Food safety issues present risks to consumers – but also to all the other players in a value chain. Solutions must create value for farmers, food companies, and consumers. This either means that food safety solutions must lead to a premium for farmers, or have alternative value drivers – like improving soil health or yields.

3. Role of biologics in solving critical problems

Science is showing us that working in tandem with nature offers the best solution. Working with the complex systems within the soil, within the plant, and amongst these two systems is proving to be the best path to improving outcomes for producers and consumers.

4. Food safety is an issue for multiple stakeholders

At Microgen Biotech, we’ve seen that tackling the issue of reducing heavy metal uptake by plants is one that must bring together a range of stakeholders, from farmers to consumers and branded food companies to government agencies. Improving food safety is a shared goal.

A three-pronged value proposition

Layered into this discussion is the interaction between heavy metal uptake and climate change. According to research conducted at Stanford University:

“Experiments exploring rice production in future climate conditions show rice yields could drop about 40% by 2100 – with potentially devastating consequences in parts of the world that rely on the crop as a basic food source. What’s more, changes to soil processes due to increased temperatures will cause rice to contain twice as much toxic arsenic than the rice consumed today.”

We think of agtech solutions as driving yields, improving productivity and profitability, even improving food quality. But last month’s Congressional report highlights a massive problem that carries long-term risks for the most vulnerable population: infants.

Here is an opportunity to put science to work in practical ways to stop the uptake of heavy metals by plants, while simultaneously improving both yields and soil health.

In our experience, this three-pronged value proposition is what rallies the oft-at-odds stakeholders around solving a shared problem in a mutually beneficial way. To mitigate the unprecedented heavy-metals food safety issues in China, MicroGen Biotech has applied its government-approved natural microbiome solutions across 20 provinces since 2015 – helping Chinese farmers reduce the levels of arsenic, lead, and cadmium in rice, wheat, potatoes, and leafy greens economically and sustainably.

I expect more examples like this as the promise of agtech continues unfolding with solutions for problems throughout the food sector.

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