Britain and the US have been accused of launching secret biological warfare on Afghanistan's poppy fields in a bid to blight the opium crop
Poppy plants have been suffering from a mysterious disease which leaves them yellow and withered and slashes the yield of opium resin which is sold on and processed into heroin.
The worst affected farmers have said the scale of the infection is unprecedented. Yields have dropped by up to 90 per cent in some fields they complained.
Farmers are claiming that the British and Americans are responsible for the outbreak of the poppy plague but officials have strongly denied involvement.
Samples of diseased plants are awaiting tests in Kabul and the cause remains unclear.
The blight was first noticed a month ago with reports it was linked to an infestation of aphids in wheat and fruit trees. It has since been found in four provinces across the south.
Early surveys suggest half the crop in northern Helmand is affected and a fifth of fields in the province's south. Symptoms have been spotted in Kandahar, Zabul and Uruzgan.
The United Nations said the disease would contribute to a significant drop in the opium harvest from last year's total of nearly 7,000 tonnes.
The country grows about 90 per cent of the world's opium. Tithes and protection money from the drug trade are estimated to give up to £60m a year to the Taliban-led insurgency.
The allies have spent billions of pounds trying to cut opium cultivation, but have rejected crop spraying, fearing that robbing farmers of their livelihood will push them to the militants.
The British-led anti-drugs strategy has instead tried to wean farmers from opium on to wheat, saffron and fruit.
British officials in Helmand are now trying to counter the rumours of international involvement in the outbreak, fearing they will be used by the Taliban to alienate farmers from Nato troops.
Abdul Ahmad, a 39-year-old farmer from Helmand's Gereshk district, said he expected his opium crop to fall from 154lbs last year to 15lbs this year.
He said: "We have had disease before although nothing like this. There were little insects in the trees and the wheat, but they are only harming the opium." "I said first this is a disease because of the insects. Now people are saying foreigners have sprayed some kind of chemical from planes."
Ahmad Jan, a 25-year-old farmer from Nad-i-Ali district, said: "We cannot be certain this is a disease. Most people think this is a chemical spray." Prior to the outbreak, the UN had estimated the 2010 crop would be similar to last year.
Jean-Luc Lemahieu, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan, said: "Samples are at the lab and we are at this moment not sure if it is a fungus or some insect.
"Spraying has been forbidden in very clear words by the President of Afghanistan. Hence, awaiting the results from our lab tests, we start with the belief that this is a natural phenomenon."
Fighting and opium seizures had already been credited with pushing farm gate opium prices up by 19 per cent since last year as speculators bet on reduced supply.
An international official in Helmand said there was "absolutely" no US or British involvement. He said: "The government of Afghanistan are not using any kind of spraying and there's nothing else going on either."
May 6, 2010