OATS is one of those popular 'super-foods' laced with health benefits, but an infection at farm level is causing problems with grain quality, the Oxford Farming Conference heard, recently.

Cranfield University’s Professor Naresh Magan, presenting on his current research into the contamination of oats said the crop can become infected during the critical ripening phase, with a pathogen called fusarium langsethiae. This is a fungus that contaminates the grains with toxic mycotoxins and is insidious because there are no visible symptoms. This makes making them unsuitable for human, or animal feed consumption.

Although there are European Union directives on maximum safety levels in oats for human consumption, there is no information on how climate change could influence the infection of oats by this pathogen and impacts on mycotoxin contamination and consequently oat quality, he pointed out.

Professor Magans’ group is working closely with University College Dublin on a four-year BBSRC and Science Foundation Ireland initiative, to develop novel and innovative strategies for control pre- and post-harvest.

Evidence suggests that elevated temperatures, increased CO2 concentrations and mild drought stress may increase the likely contamination of oats in the future.

Professor Magan said: “Extreme weather events are becoming more common and the resilience of staple food chains is very important. We need data on the impact that climate change scenarios may have on cereals to ensure sustainability and food security and ensuring that we can minimise toxic contaminants, especially mycotoxins, from entering the food production chain to consumers.

"This project is addressing these issues in relation to oats which will have benefits for farmers and for downstream processing.”

The team is looking at identifying cultivars in the UK and Ireland which have better resistance to the pathogen. They will develop effective strategies for controlling contamination by better understanding the effect of present and future climate change scenarios on the pathogen and toxin contamination.

The theme of this year’s Oxford Farming Conference is ‘World of Opportunity’ and it runs from 2-4 January 2019.