Toxin in corn harvest latest headache for US farmers

Corn in a field. REUTERS/Daniel Acker/File Photo
Corn in a field. REUTERS/Daniel Acker/File Photo

Tom Polansek and Michael Hirtzer

North American farmers are finding increased levels of a plant toxin known as vomitoxin in this year’s corn harvest, adding insult to injury for growers already suffering as the U.S.-China trade war hurts soybean exports and crop prices.

Vomitoxin sickens livestock and can also make humans and pets fall ill, and grain buyers can reject cargoes or fine farmers for shipments that contain it.

More cases than normal are likely in the corn crop because wet weather this autumn caused the fungus to develop while delaying harvests, Iowa State University grain quality expert Charles Hurburgh said on Monday.

About three-fourths of U.S. corn is used domestically to feed livestock and make ethanol and a byproduct called distillers’ dried grains that is fed to animals. However, livestock and ethanol producers need to blend corn that contains vomitoxin with corn that does not to make it suitable for feed when toxin levels are high.

“Hogs don’t like the taste and don’t like the smell. They will literally starve to death before eating it,” said Indiana grain inspector Doug Titus of Titus Grain Inspection, whose company has labs at Andersons Inc, a crop handler, and energy company Valero Energy Corp sites.

The quality worries come as U.S. farm income has plunged by half over the past five years and as the deepening trade war harms demand for soybeans, the most valuable U.S. agricultural export product to China, and one frequently rotated with corn.

WH Group Ltd’s Smithfield Foods Inc [SFII.UL], the world’s biggest pork producer, has detected vomitoxin in corn in Iowa and Nebraska, where it is not normally a problem, a source with knowledge of the situation said.

The company, which feeds corn to hogs, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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