May 30, 2006
Washington, DC -- If a fungus can be unleashed to kill the plants that produce cocaine and heroin without contaminating the soil, Rep. Mark Souder, R-3rd, contends, the U.S. government should test it and then use it in the drug fields of Colombia and Afghanistan.
He’s angry at what he sees as foot-dragging in the Bush administration, especially in the drug czar’s office. “We’re frustrated and amazed at the resistance to looking at alternative methods” of eradicating the drug-producing plants, Souder said.
But the drug czar, John Walters, and his staff say a coca-killing fungus – Fusarium oxysporum – might wreak havoc in the soil, ruining it for any kind of plants, including the crops the U.S. wants Colombian and Afghan farmers to grow instead of coca and poppies. Cocaine is made from coca plants; heroin is made from poppies.
The government’s own scientists, however, say those concerns are unjustified, based on tests Walters said haven’t occurred.
Fusarium is a naturally occurring fungus that can cause many plant diseases. Each strain of Fusarium oxysporum is thought to attack only one kind of plant. Skeptics, including the drug czar’s office, say it’s not known whether the fungus designed to kill coca plants would spread to other plants or jump to humans. A recent outbreak of eye infections linked to contact lens solution has been blamed on one kind of Fusarium.
“It’s an organism that could mutate into another organism that kills everything,” said Thomas Riley, spokesman for the drug czar’s office. “The concern is if it mutates into something else, you’ve unleashed it on the wild.”
He said the experiment by federal scientists “although interesting, was not conclusive concerning the safety and specificity of Fusarium.”
Souder boils over at that attitude. But his anger at the drug czar’s office was eclipsed by his frustration with the lack of communication among government agencies when he learned – from a journalist – that a coca-killing fungus was identified by the Agriculture Department and tested in Hawaii a decade ago.
In those tests – set up to test the effects of chemical herbicides on coca plants – the coca plants inexplicably started to die. Eventually, scientists discovered that a Fusarium in the soil attacked coca plants (but not native vegetation).
Adding more Fusarium killed the plants faster, said Bryan Bailey, a plant pathologist with the department’s Agriculture Research Service and the lead scientist on the Hawaii project.
That strain of Fusarium kills only coca plants, Bailey said.
“We were never able to infect anything other than eruthroxylum coca,” he said, using the scientific name for coca plants.
A chemical herbicide also kills coca plants and does so quicker, Bailey said. But the difference is that after Fusarium is in the soil, it will kill coca plants year after year. Chemical herbicides have to be applied regularly.
So why doesn’t the government adopt a fungus approach to killing coca, particularly in Colombia, where the U.S. has spent more than $5 billion since 2000 on trying to disrupt the production of coca?
“The current herbicide that we are using is effective,” Walters told Rep. Dan Burton, R-5th, at a hearing last year when Burton demanded to know why the tests haven’t been launched.
That herbicide – glyphosate – is commonly sold in the U.S. as Roundup, which is used to zap weeds in fields growing soybeans, corn or other crops. In Colombia, it is sprayed from planes on coca fields; the pilots are subject to being shot at from rebels on the ground.
But Burton said glyphosate has to be applied every few months, whereas Fusarium oxysporum is a once-and-done treatment.
Walters said it’s not clear that Fusarium oxysporum works on coca or that it won’t kill other crops or harm the environment.
He said the Colombian government is not willing to allow the U.S. to test the fungus in their country, adding, “I don’t think it is prudent or promising to test it at this time.”
Souder said he was unaware of the Agriculture Department’s 1995 experiments in Hawaii and that other government agencies – the State Department and the drug czar’s office – have maintained for years that Fusarium oxysporum remained untested and unwanted by foreign governments.
“What the State Department told me is there are environmental concerns for what it does to the soil,” he said.
Souder said it should be easy enough to test the Hawaiian fields that are infected with the coca-killing fungus to see whether other crops can grow there. If they can, he said, the Colombian government could probably be persuaded to accept a field test before the fungus is spread throughout the coca-growing region.
He said the same approach – a biological herbicide – should be tested on poppy plants with a goal of using it in Afghanistan.
But spreading a non-native fungus in farmers’ fields is tantamount to biological warfare, according to an organization created to stop what it says are dangers from biotechnology, and the U.S. has signed an international treaty promising not to use biological weapons in a war zone.
“Hostile use of a biological agent is biological warfare,” said Edward Hammond, director of the U.S. office of the Sunshine Project.
“If you apply a biological agent by force in a conflict zone, where people routinely even shoot down crop eradication planes, you are damn right that it’s a hostile use. This is the case in Colombia, and the same would certainly apply in Afghanistan,” he said.
Colombia produces more than 80 percent of the worldwide powder cocaine supply and about 90 percent of the powder cocaine smuggled into the U.S., according to Drug Enforcement Administration estimates.
The amount of Colombian land used to cultivate coca has been cut in half in the past four years, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, which says aerial spraying of chemical herbicides is largely responsible for the reduction.
Nevertheless, the agency said in its most recent report, 60 percent of the fields now being used to grow coca are new.
Hammond said aside from the environmental and biological warfare concerns of launching a biological herbicide into Colombia, “coca farmers will figure a way around it pretty quickly. Has years of spraying chemicals made a dent? Nope. Fusarium oxysporum isn’t a ‘magic bullet’ either.”
This year, the House passed legislation that includes a provision calling for the drug czar’s office to develop a plan to test a fungus “in a major drug-producing nation.” It doesn’t specify Fusarium oxysporum, the test country or what plants the fungus should be used on. Action on the bill by the Senate is questionable.
It’s not the first time Congress has called for the development or tests of a fungus to kill drug-producing plants. But at a hearing in 2002, for instance, administration officials said the Bush administration hadn’t – to that point – discussed using the coca-killing fungus with the new Colombian government.
Now, Souder said, the fungus should be used on coca plants in Colombia.
That should never happen, Hammond said.
“Yes, of course, coca is not a good crop when it is grown to produce cocaine,” he said. “But the fact that a crop is destined for such a malicious product does not mean that you can suspend the law in your quest to stop it.”