Maize ear rots reduce grain yield and quality with implication on food security and health. Some of the pathogenic fungi produce mycotoxins in maize grain posing a health risk to humans and livestock. Unfortunately, the levels of ear rot and mycotoxin infection in grain produced by subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan countries are not known. A survey was thus conducted to determine the prevalence of the ear rot problem and levels of mycotoxins in maize grain. A total of 114 farmsteads were randomly sampled from 11 districts in Lusaka and southern provinces in Zambia during 2006. Ten randomly picked cobs were examined per farmstead and the ear rot disease incidence and severity were estimated on site. This was followed by the standard seed health testing procedures for fungal isolation in the laboratory. Results indicated that the dominant ear rots were caused by Fusarium and Stenocarpella. Incidence of Fusarium verticillioides ranged from 2 to 21%, whereas that of Stenocarpella maydis reached 37% on ear rot diseased maize grain. In addition, 2-7% F. verticillioides, and 3-18% Aspergillus flavus, respectively, were recovered from seemingly healthy maize grain. The mean rank of fungal species, from highest to lowest, was F. verticillioides, S. maydis, A. flavus, Fusarium graminearum, Aspergillus niger, Penicillium spp., Botrydiplodia spp., and Cladosporium spp. The direct competitive ELISA-test indicated higher levels of fumonisins than aflatoxins in pre-harvest maize grain samples. The concentration of fumonisins from six districts, and aflatoxin from two districts, was 10-fold higher than 2. ppm and far higher than 2. ppb maximum daily intake recommended by the FAO/WHO. The study therefore suggested that subsistence farmers and consumers in this part of Zambia, and maybe also in similar environments in sub-Saharan Africa, might be exposed to dangerous levels of mycotoxins due to the high levels of ear rot infections in maize grain. © 2010 Elsevier B.V.
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