Corn infected with toxic mould reaches “catastrophic” level

The corn harvest along Kimball Road at a Parkland Farms field.

Troy Shantz

This fall has brought a perfect storm to Lambton County’s corn farmers.

The cool, wet weather since August has sparked an outbreak of vomitoxin that’s made some corn harvests here and across Southern Ontario unfit for consumption.

In high concentrations vomitoxin, which is produced by mould, is harmful to humans and livestock, said Don McCabe, the Lambton-Middlesex director for the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

It’s forcing farmers to sell their yields at a heavy discount, if they can sell it at all.

“Farmers are taking a massive hit in revenue,” said McCabe. “All corn farmers are going to be affected by this.”

The Grain Farmers of Ontario sent an open letter to its 28,000 members last week saying the outbreak of the vomitoxin, called deoxynivalenol, or DON, is one of the worst it has ever seen.

“We consider this issue at a catastrophic level at this point and it is only getting worse,” the letter states.

Even ethanol producers like Sarnia’s St. Clair ethanol plant are hesitant to take heavily infected corn, McCabe said. Though it doesn’t impact the ethanol itself the by-product producers sell as livestock feed is toxic.

Corn loads that test positive for vomitoxin are discounted from 5% to 50% off the contracted price, depending on the level of vomitoxin detected.

The full extent of damage won’t be known until harvest is complete, McCabe said.

“It’s all over the county.”

Lambton County farmer Mark Lumley isn’t a fan of the way corn is evaluated using a test he calls subjective.

He said area farmers are averaging two to three parts per million of vomitoxin, a levels experts say is safe and lower than what’s showing up in some areas, he said.

“They suck about a cup full of corn from a 40-tonne truckload… grind it with a coffee grinder, add water and put in a strip of sensitive paper,” he said.

The colour the paper turns is supposed to determine the level of vomitoxin in the entire load.

“They’ve devised a discount schedule based on this subjective, highly variable and unrepresentative and unverifiable test,” he said.

“It’s unregulated by any third party like the government or grain commission.”

Lambton County has 122,000 acres in corn production and is among the top four corn producers in Ontario.