Summer 2012

Ingestion / What Is Fusarium?

A fungus among us

Adam Jasper

“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.

Fusarium is a widely distributed genus of soil-based fungi that, unlike mushrooms, does not form large fruiting bodies, prefering to grow in obscurity as it extends long, delicate filaments through the moist vegetative matter that feeds it. That is to say, Fusarium is a kind of mold. Given that most of this abundant genus is both harmless and invisible to the unaided eye, we are unaware of the fact that we frequently come in contact with it. Much like mushrooms, however, some species are noteworthy for producing highly specific poisons known as mycotoxins that can be spectacularly deleterious to human and animal health if they enter the food chain. In spite of its ubiquity and potential toxicity, Fusarium was not described until the early nineteenth century, and didn’t play a prominent role in the affairs of men. This changed in the twentieth century.

Thousands purportedly died from eating wheat contaminated with Fusarium sporotrichioides in the Soviet Union during the bitter springs of the 1940s. Totalitarianism, famine, and war not only contributed to the mass poisonings but also effaced them. What little is known is that after the forced collectivization of farms and during the war, when labor was scarce, farmers gleaned winter wheat that, under normal conditions, would have been discarded. This wheat had overwintered under the snow and had been subjected too often to thaw and frost, and had thus developed a crown blight that caused the heads to turn pink. Made into bread and distributed, the rotting grain caused a mortality rate estimated at 60%.[1]

Fusarium oxysporum, which causes disease among a variety of hosts, including potato and sugar cane. Photo Alessandro Grandini.

Alimentary toxic aleukia (the condition induced by ingesting Fusarium mycotoxins) is particularly awful. Once the acute, convulsive phase has passed, the symptoms are rather like radiation poisoning: first pain and vomiting, and then bleeding of the gums and digestive tract, and then your teeth slip painlessly, frictionlessly from your head as your white blood count falls towards zero.[2] Death itself could take weeks. Although the poisonings were widespread, many were mistaken for typhoid and other concurrent epidemics. Stalin was not known for his transparency in matters of public health, and the exact number of fatalities remains uncertain.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Fusarium was responsible for a calamity of a more domestic scale. Starting in the early twentieth century, the widespread availability of bananas, a perishable tropical fruit, had stood as testament to the enormous economies of scale and organizational prowess of the United Fruit Company. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the banana on any given US kitchen table would have been a cultivar known as the Gros Michel, or “Big Mike.” The Big Mike was grown as a monoculture in massive plantations across Central America, under a vertically integrated business empire that controlled rail lines, fleets of refrigerated ships, and, ultimately, governments. Beginning in the 1920s, however, an untreatable fungal wilt known as Panama disease had begun to so affect the crop that availability became unpredictably constricted, and prices commensurably volatile. The 1923 hit song “Yes! We Have No Bananas” commemorated the shortages that accompanied the beginning of Big Mike’s demise. Panama disease, caused by Fusarium oxysporum, killed banana trees up and down the coast.[3]

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