When Felicia Wu was a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, a genetically modified organism (GMO) showed up in taco shells and corn dogs. This puzzled the young Wu and her adviser, because at the time, this type of genetically modified corn (StarLink) was approved only for animal consumption, not human consumption.
“At the time, in 2000, I was working on another research topic, but my adviser suggested I switch to learning more about how this genetically modified corn that shouldn’t have been in the food supply ended up on our grocers’ shelves,” Wu said. “Initially, I was skeptical of GMOs. As I studied more, though, my views have changed. In fact, certain types of GMOs, such as Bt corn, have unexpected health benefits. Because Bt corn protects against insect damage, it requires fewer topical pesticides, and it also has much lower levels of toxins produced by molds.”
The turbulent topic of GMOs doesn’t shake Wu. What does is global food safety. Wu is the John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor in the departments of Food Science and Human Nutrition and Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics at MSU. She is a global food safety and security expert in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources who studies how agricultural production, innovation and practices affect human health.
As new food technologies, climate change and the availability of natural resources continually come into question, Wu realizes her work becomes that much more pressing.
“Twenty years ago, the public didn’t have a lot of knowledge about mycotoxins: the toxins that are produced by fungi, or molds, that contaminate our food,” she said. “Although people tend to know that they shouldn’t eat moldy food, there was a lot less awareness that certain molds can produce toxins that can cause cancer and a variety of other adverse public health effects. Now, there’s a bit more public awareness around the world that a certain mycotoxin—aflatoxin, common in corn and peanuts—can cause cancer. For that reason, the U.S. regulates aflatoxin in food carefully,” she said.
While U.S.-centric views can and do help, the food safety risks in other parts of the world are often more problematic.
“What we found is that these mycotoxins are especially problematic in less developed countries, especially in regions with warmer climates, where people eat large amounts of corn and peanuts. Also, these foods are often stored for a long time in warm and wet conditions that can help mold grow,” Wu said.
“Now we know that not only do these mycotoxins cause cancer, but they can also impair children’s growth,” she said. “We have a project right now to understand how mycotoxins in the diet affect the growth of children from birth till age 3 years in Tanzania and Nepal, controlling for nutritional factors and infectious disease. Then, aside from mycotoxins, there are other foodborne toxins like cassava cyanide, that not only could be extremely toxic to anyone who consumes improperly processed cassava, but can also cause cognitive impairment in children.”
Uncovering and combating these adverse health effects in children globally keeps Wu charged.
“I’m really thrilled to be a part of the global community that’s doing this kind of food safety research,” she said. “Intuitively, every one of us has an idea that if something in our environment or diet causes cancer, it probably harms our health in other ways, too. Here in the U.S., we watch over our children’s health so carefully—visits to the pediatrician, all the height and weight measurements, and being so mindful of what we feed our children. We don’t realize that in many parts of the world, people cannot easily find safer food for themselves and their children. In too many households worldwide, there’s a lot of moldy corn and peanuts in food storage, or cassava with high cyanide levels, and not much else to feed the family. They need to find ways to process this food to make it as safe as possible, and feed it to their families.”
Wu’s work is having an impact on global policy decision making and markets.
“We’ve known for more than 50 years that aflatoxin causes liver cancer—so more than 100 countries regulate aflatoxin in the food supply,” she explained. “The problem comes when countries have different standards, so world food trade can be difficult to harmonize. The European Union (EU), for example, has one of the strictest aflatoxin standards in the world. This has hurt a lot of African countries attempting to export food, particularly peanuts, to the EU.”
Wu and her team worked to quantify the economic impact of disparate regulations on African farmers trying to export crops to the EU.
“We’re talking tens to hundreds of millions of dollars of loss every year,” she said. “And that’s not something that African farmers collectively can afford. Additionally, it wouldn’t improve European human health that much because they’re consuming much lower quantities of corn and peanuts than Africans, and don’t have other liver cancer risk factors like hepatitis B viral infection that would increase risk from aflatoxin exposure.”
In 2009, the EU relaxed the aflatoxin standard for tree nuts—almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts— making trade more feasible for nations attempting to export these goods to the EU. It’s not a higher risk for health but it’s a big economic benefit, globally, she said. On the topic of GMOs, however, the EU still has a precautionary stance toward agricultural biotechnology, which again can prevent African farmers from planting genetically modified crops, for fear of losing their EU export markets.
“I’ve done a lot of work in how we make our food safer, specifically reducing mycotoxins in the food supply,” she said. “Agricultural biotechnology has a lot of promise to improve crops, not just to improve growers’ yields, but for the sake of food security and human health. For example, Bt corn has reduced mycotoxin levels everywhere it’s planted around the world. But almost no African or Asian nations allow Bt corn planting, and it’s these nations that suffer the worst health consequences from mycotoxins in food. Meanwhile, we’ve grown and eaten Bt corn for 22 years in the U.S. with no health risks. And most of the efforts to grow GMOs that produce beta carotene and other nutrients have been stymied by protesters. To reject biotechnology—whether because of real trade concerns or unfounded fears—is kind of a tragedy.”
Wu hopes that her work will have an impact on both food safety and security, but there’s a whole lot more she wants to accomplish and other areas she’s working to influence too.
“Antibiotic resistance—specifically the contribution from use of antibiotics in animal agriculture—is a relatively new area for me,” Wu said.
She was invited to serve on the National Academy of Science’s Committee for the Future of Animal Sciences Research.
“The problem of bacteria evolving resistance to antibiotics has been known since the 1940s, not many years after we first started using antibiotics such as penicillin to treat infections. Thankfully, now, this problem has gained policy attention in the U.S. and worldwide. The questions my research team wishes to answer are: What is the relative contribution of antimicrobial resistance from human medicine versus from animal agriculture, and what are the implications for human health? If we know this, we could make more informed policy decisions about how to combat the problem,” she said.
For Wu, working on these huge, wide-impact issues is something that she does all the time.
“These problems are so fascinating–and I love this work and even when I’m not working, I’m still thinking about it all the time. In some ways, I never stop working, it all flows together with my natural interests,” she said.
Her ability to reach across campus to colleagues in three medical colleges and a top-ranked agricultural college keeps her optimistic about finding solutions. It’s also what attracted her to work at MSU. In 2014, Wu founded the Center for Health Impacts of Agriculture, a center devoted to answering these massive global questions. One of the goals of the center is to establish MSU as a go-to place for expertise on the human health effects of agriculture, which can in turn position MSU well in terms of federal funding.
Wu has received federal funding from the United States Department of Agriculture, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. She acknowledges, however, that sometimes it takes a boost from private funding to get over the next research hurdle or recruit talented teams.
Wu said, “I have so much faith in the scientific community—our ingenuity in medicine, public health research, agricultural research—I keep thinking that somehow we’ll always come up with solutions for many of these global problems at the intersection of agriculture, food and human health. Maybe that’s too optimistic of me, but it’s how I feel.”
This article was published in In the Field, a yearly magazine produced by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. To view past issues of In the Field, visit www.canr.msu.edu/inthefield. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at email@example.com or call 517-355-0123.