Wheat in Europe is under growing attack from harmful mycotoxins, which cause illness in humans and animals, according to a study from the University of Bath. Almost half of European wheat crops are impacted by Fusarium Head Blight, a fungal infection that gives rise to the toxins.

The research team, led by Neil Brown, Ph.D., examined the largest Fusarium mycotoxins monitoring datasets available from governments and agribusiness, focusing on wheat grain entering the European food and animal feed supply chains. By using data from across Europe (including the UK) from the past 10 years, the team built the most complete picture yet of the mycotoxin threat and how it is changing.

Fusarium mycotoxins were discovered in every European country. Half of the wheat intended for human food in Europe contains the Fusarium mycotoxin Deoxynivalenol (commonly referred to as “vomitoxin”), and in the UK, 70 percent of wheat is contaminated.

Governments set legal limits on vomitoxin contamination levels in wheat that is to be consumed by humans. Such regulations provide effective protection, with 95 percent of wheat destined for the table meeting the safety limits for vomitoxin concentration. However, the finding that mycotoxins are ubiquitous is concerning, as the effect of constant, low-level exposure to mycotoxins in one’s diet over the course of a lifetime is not known.

Additionally, the researchers found that 25 percent of food wheat containing vomitoxin also contained other Fusarium toxins. This is likely an underestimate, as not all wheat is routinely tested for other toxins. The University of Bath researchers explain that it possible that the additional toxins interact synergistically with vomitoxin to have adverse health effects that are greater than one toxin working alone. The exact health implications are not yet understood, however.

Fusarium Head Blight is a disease that fluctuates year-to-year, but the authors of the study have found that, in the Mediterranean, mycotoxin levels in high-disease years have become more severe since 2010. Mycotoxin levels recorded in the Mediterranian during 2018 and 2019 outbreaks were higher than at any other time within the same decade.

The researchers suspect that changes in farming, such as soil preservation practices that provide a home for the Fusarium fungus, and climate change are playing an important role in the increasing levels of mycotoxins in wheat. The researchers stress the importance of the development of better ways to protect crops against fungal pathogens.