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USDA grants $611k for crop uptake of heavy metals research

August 19, 2023
Consumer Packaged Goods

A Michigan State University research team has received a $611,000 grant from the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture to examine crop uptake of heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium and lead.

The initiative follows a 2021 congressional report on the neurological and developmental dangers of high levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury in store-bought baby foods.

In 2021, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) introduced ‘Closer to Zero’, an action plan that focuses on reducing contaminant exposure from foods, especially those commonly consumed by infants and young children.

The new project is being led by Wei Zhang, associate professor and associate chair in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences at Michigan State University (MSU). The team is composed of scientists representing four MSU departments, and each member is also supported by MSU AgBioResearch.

Zhang said that the FDA is expected to create guidelines on maximum allowable levels of these heavy metals in foods over the coming years, which will have “significant consequences” for farmers and food processors.

“To ensure a safe food supply, it is crucial to understand what drives crop uptake of heavy metals, which is extremely complex and varies by crop species, soil type, field topography and climatic conditions,” Zhang said. “We recognise that solutions to this problem require stakeholder collaboration across entire food supply chains.”

The project builds on ongoing research that includes various team members who are testing the effectiveness of soil amendments on minimising carrot uptake of multiple heavy metals. This research by a Specialty Crop Block Grant through the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Jamie Clover Adams, executive director of the Michigan Carrot Committee, said: “Michigan carrot growers annually produce more than 52,000 tons of processing carrots, consistently striving to deliver a safe and wholesome ingredient to processors. Our initial year of the Specialty Crop Block Grant has revealed that multiple factors influence the uptake of heavy metals in carrots.”

He added: “This research is a good start to helping growers better predict potential uptake risk at the time of field selection and manage uptake risk during carrot growth, but it’s only the beginning. The USDA funding represents the crucial subsequent phase that will equip Michigan carrot growers with the necessary information to provide an even safer product to consumers in the future.”

In another project through the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences, the team is assessing cadmium exposure from rice, spinach and other crops as part of the Closer to Zero plan. Additionally, they are said to be applying machine learning techniques to predict crop uptake of contaminants more accurately.

With the USDA funding, the team will be able to expand research on carrots and open its doors to include wheat. Carrots and wheat were chosen because they are common ingredients in baby foods and have a large production in Michigan, US.

The project has three overarching objectives aimed at uncovering the circumstances that lead to heavy metal uptake and what can be done to mitigate it. For the first objective, soil samples taken from participating growers and commercial carrot and wheat fields in Michigan will be examined and analysed for arsenic, cadmium and lead.

Researchers will check for low contamination levels and measure that alongside crop uptake. Zhang said if heavy metal levels are high in crops at low soil contamination, greater contamination could lead to more crop uptake. Carrots and wheat will also be grown in MSU greenhouses to evaluate crop uptake at various growth stages and soil moisture levels.

The second objective will focus on applied research in Michigan carrot and wheat fields. Soil and plant samples will be extracted over several years to investigate potential changes in crop uptake based on differing growth stages, soil properties and topography.

Samples will be taken at three points during the season – the start, middle and end of the year – but researchers will determine if additional samples are needed due to excessive wet or dry periods.

Thirdly, researchers will use the climate, plant and soil data collected from the first two objectives to create machine learning-based risk models for heavy metal uptake. Using these models and other available data, they will generate an assessment of the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of mitigation strategies. These include soil amendments, crop rotation, fertilizer management and cultivar selection.

The project hopes to develop a management guide that “offers cost-effective practices tailored to the conditions of individual farms, and resources for policymakers that help them make informed decisions” by its completion.

By Gwen Jones


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