It’s harvest time for corn producers in the Panhandle. Hundreds of thousands of acres filled with swaying, golden cobs are being pulled from the ground right now. But there’s a problem. High levels of a toxin called fumonisin were recently discovered in some Panhandle corn. And it could cause problems both for the producers themselves, and consumers further down the food chain.
David Gibson, executive director of the industry group Texas Corn Producers, says that some level of the soil-borne fungus fumonisin is normal. But that unusual climate conditions this growing season have caused it to surpass levels typical in Texas.
“What we had this year was we had probably our hottest weather of the season during June. Then we moved into an August that was below normal on temperatures and way above normal on rainfall,” he says. “It’s just kind of that perfect nursery, so to speak, to cause this mold to grow.”
A tweet on the Texas Corn Producers’ Twitter account shows images from a packed meeting Wednesday night in Dumas on the fumonisin issue.
“It’s standing room only at TCP & @txextension fumonisin meeting in Dumas as farmers & agribusiness gather to gain insight on regional issue,” the tweet reads.
Corn farmers are facing a lot of unknowns when it comes to selling their product right now, according to Gibson.
“The concern to the farmers is that, as they’re harvesting this corn, there’s a lot of uncertainty [caused] by the grain buyers as to what discounts may be,” he says.
Buyers are buying corn at 30 percent to 50 percent of its normal price right now, to offset the risk that they might buy a contaminated harvest, according to Gibson.
“We’ve seen such variability this year that a lot of the buying points are really taking a cautionary stand because they don’t want to have a lot of quantity they bought that they ultimately may not be able to move,” he says.
This uncertainty stems from the fact that it’s impossible to know if corn is contaminated just by looking at it, according to Gibson.
“We’ve had growers that have hauled into a facility and been told that their levels were very high and even some that were turned away from certain buying points,” he says.
Most of the corn produced in north Texas is turned into livestock feed, according to Gibson. He says feed corn is subjected to pretty strict regulations. But there’s still the chance that contaminated grain could slip into the food chain.
“I don’t want to say this, but there’s some bad actors in everything that happens,” Gibson says. “If all of the proper channels are followed, and anything that the consumer purchases is FDA inspected and FDA approved, the chances of that happening is very, very low.”
Despite the uptick in mold this year, Gibson says he’s confident there will be enough corn with low enough levels of fumonisin to feed livestock.
“At the levels we’re seeing in most of our corn, we’re going to be able to make corn that’s below a level that’s toxic to any of the animals, that will totally be able to pass through the animal’s system, that will not go into any of the meat, milk or anything that will enter into the human food chain,” he says.
Written by Kate Groetzinger.