Subh-e-Nau Magazine

Impacts of Mycotoxins 

Fungi is a large group which can cause infections and allergy, and are also capable of producing mycotoxins and organic chemicals that are responsible for various toxicologic effects.  

Fungi produce some of the most toxic substances, called mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are a diverse and pervasive group of compounds which are toxic chemical products produced by fungi that  are quite ubiquitous. They grow and contaminate food and agricultural commodities and are capable of causing disease and death in both humans and other animals.
Mycotoxins are produced by fungi under specific conditions, such as high humidity, poor agricultural practices, or damaged and contaminated crops. They are known as the natural contaminants of food and feed.
Fungi are everywhere. They are essentially aerobic so they are easy to spot. The toxin cannot be seen by the naked eye, although the fungi  that yields mycotoxins can be seen by the naked eyes. Aspergillus flavus, the fungi  responsible for the making mycotoxin seems yellowish-green in color. As the fungus ages, the spores turn to darker green.
One fungal specie  may produce many different mycotoxins, and several species may produce the same mycotoxin. One small moldy fruit or vegetable can pollute a huge batch of juice, jam or other product.
According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) of the UN (United Nations), approximately 25% of food that are produced in the world consist of mycotoxins, which are toxic by nature. Some fungi produce mycotoxins that are harmless, and even helpful. For example, the antibiotic penicillin came from a fungus, and it is a mycotoxin.

Types of Mycotoxins 

Mycotoxins, made of fungi, colonise the grains and can come in various types. Currently, there are about 500 species of mycotoxins and it is estimated that another 1000 have yet to be discovered.
There are  different fungal species of the genera Aspergillus, Alternaria, Penicillium, Fusarium, Claviceps, and several others, which  are  capable of producing mycotoxins. The main producers of mycotoxins are species of Aspergillus (aflatoxins (AFL), ochratoxin A (OTA), trichothecenes, and deoxynivalenol (DON)), Fusarium (zearalenone (ZEA), fumonisins (FUM) B1 and B2, and the emerging mycotoxins fusaproliferin, moniliformin, beauvericin, and enniatins), Claviceps (ergot alkaloids), and Alternaria (altenuene, alternariol, alternariol methyl ether, altertoxin, and tenuazonic acid).
Mycotoxins currently receiving the most attention as potential hazards to human and animal health includes; Trichothecenes, aflatoxins (AFs), Alternaria toxins, fumonisins (FBs), ochratoxin A (OTA), and zearalenone (ZEN).
Mycotoxins show a structural diversity resulting in different chemical and physical properties. Mycotoxins can be classified as polar or non polar molecules; however, there are several that fall in between. AFLs and FUMs are highly polar, while trichothecenes are polar and ZEAs are nonpolar.
This diversity could be resolved by such a material that changes its properties under various physicochemical conditions and can denote both polar and non polar substances.

Aflatoxins

Aflatoxins, a type of mycotoxins were identified in the early 1960s. They are naturally occurring mycotoxins that are produced by many species of Aspergillus, a fungus, most notably Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus. Aflatoxins are toxic and among the most carcinogenic substances known. They are remarkably potent, often causing disease even when ingested in minute amounts.
They occur mostly in tropical regions with high humidity and temperature thus promote fungal growth.
Aflatoxins can cause disease throughout the body, but are most commonly known for causing acute or chronic liver disease and liver cancer. Common foods that are affected with A. Flavus fungi are cereals, grains like maize, rice, wheat and sorghum, oil seeds like groundnut, cotton seed, coconut, soybean and sunflower, tree nuts like pistachio, almonds, walnuts, vegetable products like cocoa and spices like chillies and black pepper.
Aflatoxins can be seen in milk and milk products if the milch animal is fed on feeds prepared from oil seed cake of infested ground nut, cotton seed and coconut. They grow on grains and legumes mostly during storage, so the grains and legumes must be stored correctly to limit this problem. These toxins are lipophilic, which means that they are able to cross placental barrier and can be bio activated in utero thereby complicating pregnancies, as revealed by the presence of aflatoxin–albumin adducts in cord blood samples.

Fumonisins

Fumonisins are a family of mycotoxins produced by the fungi Fusarium verticillioides  and related fungi that primarily contaminate maize. They were first isolated and their structure was identified in 1988. FB1, FB2 and FB3 are the major naturally occurring Fumonisins. FB1 is by far the most prevalent in the human diet and was categorised as a Group 2B carcinogen by International Agency for Research on Cancer. FB1 causes equine Leukoencephalomalacia, porcine pulmonary oedema and a variety of hepatotoxic and nephrotoxic effects in animals. Animal studies have demonstrated that Fumonisins exposure can cause neural tube defects  giving rise to further concerns that it could cause similar effects in humans.

Factors Favourable for Mycotoxin Production 

Huge quantities of food are wasted every year, because they are invaded by toxic fungi and get contaminated by fungal metabolic products. Such spoilage is prominent in hotter countries, where problems of food shortages already exist. One reliable estimate is that mycotoxins affect a quarter of the world’s food crops, including many basic foodstuffs such as animal feed, crops like maize, rice and wheat.
The atmosphere and storage conditions have been enrolled to have an impact on the development of the expected mycotoxins in food commodities. Humidity, grain fragments, or weeds are the major factors for mould propagation in stored materials.
Mycotoxins are produced by a few strains of fungi at some point during their growth under suboptimal growth conditions or limited nutrients.  Production occurs preferentially on materials that both allow toxigenic fungi  to grow and provide the conditions for mycotoxin production.
From the many studies of the production of mycotoxins it is revealed that conditions that favour production of one type of mycotoxins may not be favourable for production of another type. For example, aflatoxin production by Aspergillus is dependent on concentrations of O2, CO2, zinc, and copper, as well as physical location, while production of ochratoxin relates to air exhaustion. Understanding the conditions under which mycotoxins are produced is important since presence of toxigenic fungi in any environment does not prove the presence of a mycotoxin.

Route of Entry 

Exposure to mycotoxins can occur through ingestion, contact or inhalation of airborne particulates containing the toxins, including dust and fungal components such as spores and mycelial fragments. In agricultural settings, mycotoxicoses (mycotoxin poisoning) in both farm animals and humans can result from oral, dermal, or exposure through inhalation of mycotoxin-contaminated grain or dust.
Mycotoxins may enter the food supply by direct contamination, resulting from fungal  growth on the food, or by indirect contamination through the use of contaminated ingredients in processed foods. Indirect exposure to mycotoxins can also result from consumption of animal products, such as milk, which contain mycotoxin residues.
Commodities susceptible to direct contamination with mycotoxins include nuts, oilseeds, grains and to a limited extent, certain fruits. Residues of aflatoxin have been found in animal products such as fluid milk, nonfat dry milk, cottage cheese and imported cheeses.
In feeding experiments with aflatoxins, the toxins were found in livers, kidneys and certain tissues of pigs and broiler chickens, and in eggs from laying hens fed aflatoxin. Residues of ochratoxin A have been found in livers, kidneys, muscle and adipose tissues of poultry.
Refrigerated foods, such as cheeses, cured meats and certain flour-based products, subject to fungal  growth during storage, have been shown to be contaminated with a variety of potential mycotoxin-producing fungi. Experimental evidence indicates that certain mycotoxins could be produced on refrigerated foods under certain conditions.
Aflatoxin production is favoured by temperatures of 20 to 25 oC; but has been reported to occur as low as 7 to 12 oC. Toxins produced by Penicillium species can be produced at temperatures as low as 5 oC.

Mycotoxins And Their Adverse Effects

There is no doubt that mycotoxins have adverse effects on human and animal health in many parts of the world.  The toxic effects caused by mycotoxins in animals and humans are called mycotoxicosis.
Fungi can cause adverse effects on human health that effects their organ systems. The nature of these toxic effects varies depending on:
  • The chemical structure of the toxin.
  • The concentration of toxin present in foods and feeds
  • The time of exposure of the food with the toxin.
  • In animals, it causes acute intoxication.
  • Losses in productivity.
  • Reduced weight gain.
The most important feature of mycotoxicoses, genotoxic effects and the involvement of certain mycotoxins such as aflatoxin, ochratoxins and fumonisins in the etiology of human cancers have obtained particular attention.
Among various types of mycotoxins, aflatoxins (AFs) and ochratoxin A (OTA) are of great concern due to their adverse effects on human health.

Mycotoxins in Indoor Environment and their Health Effects 

Frequently, toxigenic fungi  have been isolated from building materials and air samples in buildings where residents have suffered from non-specific symptoms possibly related to mycotoxin production, such as cough; irritation of eyes, skin, and respiratory tract; joint ache; headache; and fatigue.
It has been found out that the presence of some mycotoxins has been confirmed in crude building materials. Most mycotoxins have yet to be extracted from either air samples or bulk material derived from indoor environments.

Factors Responsible For Causing Adverse Effects By Mycotoxins 

The severity of the adverse effect depends on many factors, such as;
  • the level of toxicity.
  • Mycotoxin contamination level.
  • Age and health status of the individual.
  • Possible synergistic effects of other chemicals encountered by the person.

Adverse conditions caused by Mycotoxins

The toxic effects caused by mycotoxins in humans, range from;
  • Acute effect .For example liver or kidney deterioration.
  • Chronic effect. For example liver cancer.
  • Mutagenic and teratogenic effects. For example skin irritation, immunosuppression, birth defects, neurotoxicity, and death.
Thus, it can be said that Mycotoxins can be nephrotoxic, immunosuppressive, carcinogenic  and teratogenic. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), aflatoxins are classified in Group 1 (carcinogenic to humans), whereas Fumonisin B1 (FB1) is classified in Group 2B (possibly carcinogenic to humans). Deoxynivalenol (DON) and other trichothecenes, as well as AFB1 can exert immunosuppressive effects, and FB1 may contribute to neural tube defects. Renal dysfunction due to OTA exposure is also a significant problem, because of the potential of the toxin to exacerbate impaired renal function in individuals with diabetes. 

Testing

As per the Food and Agriculture Organization, around 25% of the food produced worldwide contains mycotoxins, which is not seen by the eye and is toxic. Mycotoxins can cause infection in both human beings and animals and with the population expansion across the globe it has become  mandatory to drive mycotoxin testing.
As a result more than 100 countries have established regulations for testing mycotoxins in food and feed before they reach the end users.
Food safety, moist atmosphere which results in the production of mycotoxins in dairy products, cookies, meat and poultry products, bread, herbs, cereals, and beverages are  the  driving factors for  the global mycotoxin testing. A rising consumer awareness pertaining to the presence of mycotoxins in various food products is creating a heightened demand for mycotoxin testing.  With technological advancements, there have been tests that efficiently and quickly identify the existence of mycotoxins.
To check the presence of  Myxotoxins certain tests are used, they may be tested either by an enzyme linked immunosorbant assay (ELISA) or liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrophotometry (LC MSMS). These methods of mycotoxin analysis deliver appropriate levels of detection and quantification, ensuring that your feed matches the regulatory requirements for the levels of mycotoxins present.
Among all technologies used for mycotoxin testing, HPLC is most common as it is economical technology and is helpful to detect and quantify mycotoxins in food products.  The global mycotoxin testing  can be segmented on the basis of type, technology, food and feed tested.
By type, it can be divided into Aflatoxins, Fusarium toxins, Ochratoxins, Patulin, and others including alternaria, Citrinin, Ergot Alkaloids, sterigmatocystin, and cyclopiazonic acid. By technology, it can be segmented into LC-MC/GC-MS- based, immunoassay-based/ELISA, HPCL-based, and others such as test kits.
Food tested for mycotoxins can be categorised into cereals, grains, and pulses, dairy products, meat and poultry, processed food, nut, seed, and spice, and others including fruits and vegetables and food additives. Feed mycotoxins are divided into cereals and its products, oil meals and cakes, forage and silage, and other feed ingredients and concentrates.
The global mycotoxin testing is challenged by the lack of infrastructure facilities and food controller systems. The shortage of mycotoxin testing equipment is also a problem.
However, with the improvement in the economy of developing countries and advancements in technology, things are improving.  Governments in these countries are implementing various regulations regarding food safety, which will help improve the condition of the mycotoxin testing in the developing nations.

Situation Of Mycotoxins Contamination In Pakistan

In Pakistan agriculture is a primary driver for the economic development, almost 21.8% share of GDP is obtained from this sector that play a vital role in the economy of the country.  Naturally present toxins in food are plant secondary metabolites, bacterial toxins, phycotoxins and mycotoxins.
Whereas, mycotoxins are metabolites produce by fungi which contaminate food like crops, fruits and vegetables. Those fungi species which produce mycotoxins are known as phytopathogenic organisms that infect crops and fruits.
In Pakistan limited information is available on toxicological data of mycotoxins in crops. The previous studies are mostly restricted to the determination of aflatoxins, zearalenone, and ochratoxin A contamination using nonconfirmatory analytical techniques, while mycotoxin contamination is a global problem now.
Few researches after the year of 2007 highlighted the presence of different mycotoxins in different crops like rice, wheat, chilies and maize and their potential threats to human beings and animals after consumption of contaminated food materials.
The economic consequences of mycotoxin contamination are profound, as the crops contaminated with high levels of mycotoxin are often destroyed. The effected crops are sometimes diverted to animal feed, which may reduce growth rates, lead to illness of animal consuming contaminated feeds and result in meat and milk containing toxic residues or biotransformation products.

Food Products effected by Mycotoxins in Pakistan 

Mycotoxins are recognised throughout world, as one of major agent of food contamination. The risk of contamination of different agricultural commodities is increased and the hazards of using the contaminated products have been highlighted, not only in Pakistan but also throughout the world. These commodities are vulnerable to mycotoxins contamination in the presence of high humidity and high fungal contents if not stored appropriately.
 Fungal contamination continue through different stages of harvesting such as packaging, storage and various other processing stages, as long as the environmental conditions especially moisture content and temperature are conductive to fungal development.
Mycotoxins are climate dependent and this is the key driving force in fungal accumulation and mycotoxins production. In this regard Pakistan is more vulnerable to such climatic events like alteration in temperature, humidity, drought and flooding. Pesticides, heavy metals and soil fertilisers are other potential triggers of concern in developing countries. 
The mycotoxin contamination is found to be in different food products that we consume in our daily food for example Pakistani rice showed the prevalence of AFB2, AFB1, NIV, DAS, FB1, OTA, DON, HT2, and ZEN. It is researched that Chocolates tend to have the highest amount of aflatoxins and ochratoxin A. The potential risk of liver cancer arising from aflatoxin B1 intake was assessed in the Pakistani population of Punjab.
The food products which are mostly effected by Mycotoxins are:
Mycotoxin in ChiliesChili belongs to Family Solanaceae, it has significant economic value in Pakistan because it is used as spice and is  considered  as basic ingredient of everyday food in Pakistan. That is why it uses throughout the year however it grows seasonally, harvesting in mid July up to end of November month. Red chilies usually dried under sun heat just for 4 to 7 days. This lead to substantial possibility for moisture accumulation at some storage stages, which is favourable to the Aflatoxin producing fungi growth. Even drying on the soil involves the collection of diseased chilies and takes for granted to remove the damaged chilies. 
Mycotoxins in Wheat Grains: Wheat is one of major crop in Pakistan, it is  used as staple food in all part of the country.
Being major component of food, about 40 to 45% of nutrition is derived from the consumption of wheat, which is considered as an essential part of meal in everyday life of rural and urban population. Wheat can be contaminated by variety of fungi at different stages of harvest i.e. inappropriate drying, storage, packaging and transportation.
The most important and most prevalent strains of fungi reported from different stored grains of wheat in Pakistan, are various species of Apergillus, Penicillium, Fusarium. The most widely reported mycotoxins in wheat crop are Aflatoxins and Zearelenone and some traced concentration of Deoxynivalenol.
In the presence of favourable environmental conditions fungal growth is facilitated that result in the increased rate of mycotoxins production during storage condition.
There are certain factors called stress factors such as shortage of water and pests and nonresistant quality of seed that can increase the probability of mycotoxins production in wheat crops.
Mycotoxins in Maize: Maize (Zea mays L.) is an important crop and it has a significant value in the economy of Pakistan. It is used for multiple purposes, people especially of the mountainous areas consume it as food. Its major uses are for human consumption, used as an animal feed and also for the production of oil etc. The products of maize are widely used such as corn flakes and corn flour etc. The aflatoxins and ochratoxins are the most toxic among the mycotoxins which damage the maize crop.
The weather conditions are favourable for maize cultivation but during the stages of growth till harvest certain factors enhance the production of Aspergillus species which as a result produce aflatoxins as secondary metabolites. Moisture content greatly affects the maize during the storage conditions.
Other factors which causes the mycotoxin production are water activity and temperature etc. Some other factors such as the structure of the storage area as well as the physical situation of the grain also cause the growth of fungi in maize.
Animals in domestic farming majorly depend on the grazing.Animals like cows, buffaloes, goats feed on the maize crop. While, on the commercial level, dairy feed contributes up to 70% to meet the needs of animals. This may increase the risk of different types of mycotoxin production in the dairy feed.
Myxotoxins in Rice: Rice (Oryza sativa L.) is one of the most important dietary staple foods and cereal crop almost all around the world and most especially in Asia. Contamination of of rice by mycotoxins is a serious issue for human health in the tropical and sub-tropical regions, as in these regions, the climatic conditions, agricultural and storage practices contribute to fungal growth and toxin production.
Pakistani rice products, most especially, the basmati rice was found to be contaminated with some levels of Aflatoxins but these levels do not concurrently present a potential risk to human health. Although there is a need for further investigations in this field that requires regular monitoring and performing strict routine analysis as per food quality control measures. The concentrations of mycotoxins can be further reduced by good and advanced processing and storage practices. Along with these, other measures such as the use of botanicals, microbiological and cooking methods, regarding the reduction of mycotoxins contamination in rice, can also serve the best in managing these issues.

Prevention from Mycotoxicosis

Mycotoxins contaminate the diet of a large proportion of the world’s population. In many countries mycotoxins affect staple foods, including groundnuts (peanuts), maize (corn), other cereals and nuts, such that exposure is continuous and often at high levels. The Pakistani population is not exposed to just a single mycotoxin but faces exposure to multiple mycotoxins.
To reduce the synergistic effect of mycotoxins such as aflatoxins, measures should be taken for the reduction contamination in foods. Products related to foods are contaminated during growing, pre and post harvesting period, storage, transporting and processing stages.
Mycotoxin contamination within agricultural commodities can be minimised by following plant breeding and good agricultural practices.  Keeping in mind the significant role of fungi in mycotoxins production in crops, it is strongly recommended that seed lots should be regularly monitored through certain modern technologies, in order to determine the health status of seeds prior to be exported.
Seed contaminated with fungal spores should be treated at pre harvest level as a control measure of spread of fungal diseases. Fungal growth need to be controlled both in field and storage prior to consumption to save the humans and animals health from deleterious impact of contamination.
Decontamination, cleaning, detoxification and cleaning are some other remedial measure that can be adopted in order to cease or reduce contamination to some extent. To ensure the health safety of consumers, the concerned regulatory authorities are suggested to take into account this serious issue of food contamination due to fungal growth and controlling strategies should be adopted and quality control system of food should be practice and improved.
Aspergillus spp. infect crops during cultivation but aflatoxins continue to accumulate post-harvest under poor storage conditions, which favour fungal growth and toxin production. Therefore, post-harvest interventions may contribute significantly to controlling aflatoxin. Fusaria spp., infect the maize in the field and the majority of toxin is present at the time of harvest. Thus control of FB requires more attention to pre-harvest practices and to the subsequent effects of processing and preparation of foodstuffs.
There are other different ways to reduce agricultural commodities to get contaminated with the toxin which include:
Plant breeding: Problem of contamination of cereals and millets has been successfully minimised in the past by cultivation varieties of rye, wheat and pearl millet that were resistant to the disease.
Good agricultural practices: By avoiding water stress, minimising insect infestation, reducing inoculum potential ,improved irrigation, early sowing, low plant density, balanced fertilisation, use of fungicides, pesticides and insecticides, use of strains resistant to fungal colonisation, biocontrol and genetically modified crops that inhibit fungal colonisation are effective in minimising aflatoxin contamination in groundnut and maize. Good post-harvest practices like appropriate drying, storage, transport and marketing can help in reducing the fungal infection. If contamination does occur weeding out of mouldy or insect infested seeds from sound kernels of groundnuts, by handpicking or electronic sieving can help prevent further contamination.
Detoxification: It is the process of removing the mycotoxins. Attempts have been made to detoxify the aflatoxin from foods. The detoxified product is suitable only for animal feeds and not for human consumption.
Processing and cooking:  The process cooking of crops can contribute to limiting the levels of mycotoxins in foods. The reduction of aflatoxins during the cooking process might occur because of its removal during washing, binding to a food matrix, or degradation or modification to unknown products during the aqueous heating process.However,Aflatoxins are generally quite resistant to destruction through processing and cooking.
In the case of FB, the effects of processing and cooking on toxin can be marked because the majority of maize consumed worldwide is in the form of processed products and ingredients.
while FB are relatively heat stable, up to temperatures of 100–120°C, heating during cooking can lead to reductions depending on the temperature, duration, pH, water and sugar content.
Mycotoxin  reduction is very difficult,  it requires a multifaceted approach, including farmers, government agencies, food processors and scientists. This can have a significant impact on the cost of food production.

Solutions For Reducing Mycotoxins Contamination 

The occurrence of mycotoxins in food and feed causes negative health impacts on both humans and animals. Mycotoxins  are an important issue in a number of disciplines such as food science, toxicology, applied and analytical chemistry, veterinary sciences, mycology, plant science, and agriculture.
The issue of mycotoxin risk is tricky and requires the attention of both agrotechnology specifically and the scientific community generally. Recent trends in mycotoxin elimination from food and feed have led to the application of various methods such as clay binders, yeast cell walls, or antioxidant additives, they  are the most widely used products for mycotoxin elimination to reduce their impact.
Although conventional methods are constantly improving, current research trends are looking for innovative solutions. There are three main strategies using as an innovative methods for the elimination of toxin and they are used as the possible solution for the Mycotoxins contamination, these three methods include:  fungal  inhibition, mycotoxin adsorption, and reducing the toxic effect via nanoparticles.
Recent research suggests that nanotechnology is increasingly penetrating the field of agriculture and mycotoxins. One of the most promising methods is the use of carbon-based nano-materials. Graphene has been shown to have a huge surface and high binding capacity for mycotoxins. Attention has also been drawn to polymeric nanoparticles; they could substitute adsorbents or enclose any substance, which would improve the health status of the organism.
Nanotechnologies allow for the alteration of already discovered properties and the creation of endlessly new materials with exciting possibilities. The first development of nanotechnological applications for mycotoxin elimination or detection have been implemented since 2009. Although several studies have already focused on the use of nanotechnology for mycotoxin elimination, these approaches seem to be a promising, effective, and low-cost way to minimise the health effects of mycotoxins.
Nanotechnologies allow for the alteration of already discovered properties and the creation of endlessly new materials with exciting possibilities. Nowadays, some of the latest developments in nanotechnology are commercially used in medicine, the household, textiles, and electrotechnics.
Controlling mycotoxins is an important aspect in the management of mycotoxigenic pathogens, which adds an extra challenge to find an effective biocontrol agent to control the fungal growth and toxin production simultaneously.
The potential of approaches such as metabolomics, genomics, transcriptomics, and proteomics would contribute to our understanding about fungal contamination  and will strengthen our ability to identify, isolate, and characterise mycotoxins pre and post-harvest. Various approaches have been used to assess and control mycotoxin contamination. Significant challenges still exist because of the complex heterogeneous nature of food composition, hence authorities in Pakistan need to take firm action against these menaces.
Writer: Sundeela Fayyaz

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Sourcing Seeds

The biggest obstacle to propagating plants from seed is, in many people’s minds, easy and low cost access to a reliable seed source without having to revert to expensive, hit and miss imports over the Internet. This scenario, however, is only applicable to those having a desire to grow completely new species that may or may not actually be suitable for our climatic and soil conditions.  

In addition, there is always the danger of someone unknowingly importing seed for a species with an inherent nuisance capacity that may eventually enjoy Pakistan to such a degree that it escapes from controlled cultivation into the wild, running rampant and posing a threat to indigenous species of already stressed wild plants.
There are, quite obviously, a number of established seed suppliers already here. Although they tend to offer an extremely limited range of vegetable and seasonal flower seed much of which, sadly, is of extremely poor quality, thus having a low rate of germination. If these seeds germinate at all or are of F1 or F2 hybrids, produce plants from which, if seed is collected for future use then only weak, poor quality plants will grow.
Obtaining top quality, reliable seeds of plant species, which thrive in Pakistan, is however, no problem at all and, what’s more, such seeds are relatively low cost if not absolutely free.
Take sunflower seeds for example: These are easily found, in their raw, therefore viable state, in places such as Empress Market in Karachi and a handful of these will certainly not break the bank. Plus, after you have cultivated and enjoyed your first crop of gorgeous flowers then simply let the finished blooms ripen their own seed. You may need to protect this from the birds by wrapping fine muslin cloth around them, and once they are completely dry there should be more than enough to plant in your own garden and possibly in the gardens of all your neighbors too.
Then there is Linum usitatissimum, Flax in English and ‘Alsi’ in Urdu, so simple to grow, bears attractive sky blue flowers and has numerous medicinal uses. Flax seed is widely found in dry goods stores, Hakim type shops and in many bazaars for as little as Rs20 per quarter kilo and this, as the seed is minute, makes for an awful lot of plants. Black-eyed beans, red kidney beans, Mung beans, haricot beans, whole chennas etc can all be planted and grown in the appropriate season, as can whole coriander (dhania), zeera, fenugreek and the like and none of these work out at all expensive.
Growing tomatoes, something that can be done in pots or containers of all kinds if you do not have garden space, has never been easier. All you need to do is purchase a single, prime tomato, keep it on a sunny windowsill until it is over ripe and splitting, extract the seeds, let them dry off for a week or two and then plant them in pots of good quality organic compost and you are on your way to a home grown treat.
Seed can also be harvested from all manner of plants, large or small, trees, climbers, shrubs, border flowers et al in your own or neighbors, having taken permission first of course, gardens and having ensured, particularly if the stock plants were nursery bought, that these are not the aforementioned hybrid varieties. Before you know it, you will end up with far more seeds than you have room to grow.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with collecting seed from roadside trees, trees growing in parks or in the wild as long as you are careful not to cause any kind of damage in the process. However, please, if doing this, do not be too greedy, as some seed must always be left to naturalize by itself plus to provide food for any animals and birds, which may be around. You must ensure that the seed you intend to harvest is totally ripe or else it will not germinate. Generally speaking, ripe seed is found in or on, depending on the species, dried pods, berries or flower heads. Most ripe seedpods will split to the touch, a dry bean or pea pod for instance, when ready and those on the external part of a dry flower head should fall into your hand at the slightest touch.
The seed producing ‘mechanisms’ of plants often, but not always, differ from species to species. Some produce their seeds safely tucked away inside an actual fruit or vegetable with citrus pips, tomato seed, squash, cucumber, okra (bindi), aubergines (bangan), mangoes, plums, apricots, custard apples (sharifa) and mud apples (chikoo)  being prime examples and all such seed can be carefully extracted from these when fully ripe and then propagated at home. Others, the nut family for one, are grown from the whole nut with coconuts, walnuts and hazel nuts (Urni) being quite easy if your particular climate is suitable.
Roses protect their seed inside scarlet hips, falsas, jasmine and asparagus inside their berries, bulbous plants such as amaryllis guard their seed inside pods, as do some members of the iris family, with countless varieties of seasonal bedding plants doing the same. Although others, such as members of the daisy like Compositae family of plants for instance, ripen clusters of thousands of seeds in/on the central ‘cone’ of the actual flower as do the ever-popular zinnias and cosmos.
Harvesting seeds can become an addictive passion once you have developed a taste for it and, as not all seeds can be sown immediately they are harvested due to weather/seasonal conditions then correct labeling and storage of your treasures is extremely important.
All seeds should be stored in dark colored, tightly sealed containers in, preferably, cool conditions if at all possible. Moisture must be completely kept out of the containers or else the seed will rot. Adding a sachet of silica powder, as found in medicinal tablet bottles, will help in keeping the seeds dry.
When planting time comes around you will thus be able to grow numerous species of plants at very little cost and, if you happen to grow far more plants, particularly trees, than you have room for then spread them around amongst anyone you can think of and help to improve the environment for all.
Writer: Zahrah Nasir

Articles

5 Top Summer Hazards and Safety Tips to Prevent them

Summer is all about eating mangoes, drinking lemonade and having a picnic outdoors. Nonetheless, soaring temperatures also bring numerous health and safety risks which we should never underestimate.     

Here is the list of 5 common summer hazards and tips to stay safe:

1. Heat Stroke

The sun is blazing down all over the country with the exception of a few cool hill stations. WHO suggests 18°C – 24°C is the best air temperature range for the human body. Our body begins to struggle to cool itself down after the temperature exceeds 38°C. June and July are those months when Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad and many other cities of Pakistan experience 40°C+ day for several weeks. It is normal to feel tired during summer but overwork could prove dangerous. Excessive sweating, headache, nausea and dizziness are the first signs of heat exhaustion. The above-mentioned signs should never be overlooked because untreated heat exhaustion could progress to heat stroke which is a life-threatening medical emergency. Follow these tips to minimize the risk of heatstroke:
  • Avoid going out during 11am – 4pm which is the hottest part of the day. Strictly follow this advice if you are walking, riding a 2-wheeler or driving a car with no working air-conditioner.
  • If you must work outdoors in the blazing heat, keep your head covered and move to a cooler place to take some rest whenever you feel exhausted.
  • Some people working indoors e.g. machine operators, restaurant chefs and housewives preparing the meal in hot kitchens and those in crowded spaces with poor or no air-conditioning are just as vulnerable to heatstroke.
  • Stay hydrated; drink plenty of water but do not consume carbonated soda and caffeinated beverages. Lemonade and fresh fruit juices are good to replenish what is lost in sweat and to help rehydrate your body.
  • Take frequent breaks before returning to work.
Important: Heat exhaustion can be managed by taking rest and drinking water but heat stroke is potentially lethal and requires professional medical treatment. Lack of sweating in intense heat, muscle weakness, vomiting, rapid pulse and confusion are the signs of heat stroke. Immediately move the patient to a cool place and give them ORS (Oral Rehydration Solution) to drink if they are conscious. Then take the patient to the nearest hospital for further treatment or call emergency 1122 for help if the patient begins to lose consciousness.

2. Sun Burns & Melanoma Skin Cancer

Asian skin is immune to skin cancer is a myth. Although white people of European region are more vulnerable to melanoma cancer, yet this deadly disease also affects people of different skin colors. Even black Africans can get skin cancer as a result of ultraviolet radiation caused by prolonged sun exposure and they stand lower chances of recovery. Moderate sun exposure is actually good for our skin because this is how we get vitamin D. Yes, this is partially true that Asian skin is not very susceptible to sunburns but prolong and intense sun exposure could also cause painful burns to people with darker skin color. Fortunately, managing this hazard is relatively easier. All you need to do is to limit your sun exposure; always wear a hat, long sleeved shirt and trousers, and apply a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 to your exposed body parts before going outdoors in summer. Using an umbrella does not only protect your skin from sunburns and excessive tanning but also shields your body from raging heat. It is pretty common to have a few small moles on your body but the bigger, darker moles and those in irregular shape should not be overlooked. When in doubt, do not hesitate to consult a dermatologist to rule out skin cancer. It always is better to be safe than sorry!

3.  Mosquito-borne Diseases

Summer evenings bring relief as the sun sets and it gets colder. This is when a new hazard emerges; unstoppable mosquitoes start attacking people as soon as night falls. They feed on blood and cause skin irritation, blistering and potentially known to transmit dangerous diseases including Malaria, Dengue, Chikungunya and Zika Fever to humans. It is nearly impossible to kill each mosquito in your home/town but the following tips could be really helpful to minimize the risk of mosquito bites:
  • Keep your environment clean; stagnant water, garbage and open sewer are the perfect mosquito breeding sites.
  • Use window net and install storm screen doors to prevent mosquitos from entering your house.
  • Children are more vulnerable to mosquito bites. Always cover their beds/cribs with a mosquito net.
  • Wear full sleeves shirt and long pants, and apply insect repellent lotion on your exposed body parts when outdoors.
  • Avoid wearing a dark color dress as it attracts mosquitoes the most.
  • Some mosquito repellent plants can also make a big difference.

4. Skin Infections

Sweating is the body’s natural cooling system. Excessive perspiration in the hottest months increases the risk of heat rashes and skin infections. It is not the sweat but bacteria responsible for unpleasant body odor and causing infections. Here are the simple tips to steer clear of skin problems this summer:
  • Take shower with antibacterial soap at least once a day to wash off the dirt and germs lurking in your sweaty skin.
  • Be careful at the gym, fitness center and hair salons as skin infections are often contagious.
  • Do not share your towel, hairbrush, nail clipper or roll-on deodorant, etc. with anyone else.
  • Wear clean clothes every day. Do not wear the same innerwear and socks again before washing them with detergent.
  • Sprinkling antibacterial prickly heat powder on the body can relieve heat rashes.
  • Always wear breathable clothes made of natural fiber. Synthetic fiber restrict ventilation through your body trapping heat causing excessive sweating and discomfort

5. Food Poisoning

Certain environmental conditions and poor hygiene practice can turn your favorite food into poison. We already discussed this hazard and food safety tips in the previous month’s edition in detail. The risk of food poisoning doubles during summer. Following tips can save your hospital visits.
  • Do not eat from small roadside restaurants. Contaminated drinking water, yogurt, salads and dairy beverages prepared in unhygienic conditions are the leading source of food poisoning during the summer season.
  • Food items should always be covered to protect them from flies and other bugs.
  • Food can go bad incredibly fast in a hot and humid climate. Do not risk your health; cooked food should ideally be consumed fresh or you should immediately refrigerate/freeze it for later use.
  • Salads, desserts and cooked meat/vegetables should never sit out at room temperature for more than an hour.
  • Do not refrigerate/refreeze the food after reheating or defrosting. This dangerous practice can significantly increase the risk of harmful bacterial contamination leading to food poisoning.
Important: Mild food poisoning can be treated at home by taking rest and drinking ORS. However, one should immediately seek medical attention if the symptoms do not go away or get worse. Pregnant women, young children and people with liver and kidney diseases should always visit the nearest hospital for food poisoning treatment.
Writer: Sultan Kiani
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