Killer Fungus Could Be Drug War Weapon

Killer Fungus Could Be Drug War Weapon
Posted by FoM on July 03, 2000 at 08:40:10 PT
Critics in Colombia say U.N. plan is unsafe 
Source: The TribuneNews
On a tropical Hawaiian island, a killer fungus once ravaged a field of coca bushes that Coca-Cola hoped would provide flavoring for its soft drinks.The plague in the 1970s ruined Coca-Cola’s plan to buy coca outside the Andean region. But it excited counter-drug experts in Washington, who later spent millions of dollars, some of them secretly, on a multi-year quest for a biological weapon to destroy the Andean bushes fueling the cocaine trade.
Now, under prodding from Washington, a United Nations agency wants to test the laboratory-grown fungus on a small plot in Colombia, where much of the world’s coca is grown. The proposal has whipped up a minor tempest. Opponents say the fungus might be toxic to farmers and wreak havoc on jungles that are treasures of biodiversity. Advocates say the fungus may become a “silver bullet” to kill coca plants and leave other plants unaffected.“Our experts tell us that it is worth trying,” said Klaus Nyholm, director of the U.N. Drug Control Program’s office in Colombia and Ecuador.U.S. scientists say they don’t know yet whether the fungus would safely kill the nearly 300,000 acres of coca grown in Colombia without affecting other flora, or even human life.“The tests show so far that it is a reasonably good control agent. But I wouldn’t extrapolate from that that it will work in Colombia,” said Eric Rosenquist, a national program leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Research Service in Beltsville, Md. U.S. counter-drug experts, though, cite compelling reasons to experiment further with the fungus, fusarium oxysporum, which is considered a plant pathogen, or mycoherbicide.For one, they say the fungus can be attached to seeds and dropped from high altitude. That beats the current strategy, in which U.S.-financed crop dusters buzz illegal coca fields at 150 feet or so — sometimes risking a hail of bullets from the ground. Gunmen have hit spray planes 36 times so far this year, U.S. officials say. Moreover, planes could fly at night to drop the fungus, using sensors to target coca fields.“It looks incredibly promising,” said Richard Baum, a policy analyst at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “However, we are waiting for the results of tests, and will proceed only if the scientists working with the government of Colombia tell us that mycoherbicides are safe.”Doubts exist whether a limited test in Colombia will even take place.While aides to President Andres Pastrana have reportedly expressed a “keen interest” to the U.N. agency to test the fungus, Environment Minister Juan Mayr told The Herald he is adamantly opposed."I told them, ‘Gentlemen, your project is not welcome,’ Mayr said."Last year, amid an outcry from environmentalists and ranchers, Florida shelved a plan to test another strain of fusarium oxysporum against marijuana crops. E-Mail: wgroshong thetribunenews.comBogota, Colombia By Tim Johnson, Knight Ridder Tribune  Published: July 3, 2000© 2000 The Tribune Related Articles:Another Misguided War Control or Bio Warfare? 
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