s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 26 contents

Synthesis/Regeneration 26   (Fall 2001)

“Agent Green”—The US Leads Efforts to Use
Biological Weapons in the War on Drugs

by Melissa Belvadi, Gateway Green Alliance

“Agent Green” is a phrase currently used to refer to at least two different fungi, called “mycoherbicides.” The United States government wants to use these fungi in its “War on Drugs.” What they have in common is that they are both being promoted by the US-led United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP) as part of a global plan for the eradication of illicit crops. This plan is known by the name SCOPE (Strategy for Coca and Opium Poppy Elimination). In 1998 the UN General Assembly explicitly rejected SCOPE, but the UNDCP continues to support research into these biological agents with US financing.

The US denies the categorization of these organisms as “biological weapons,” preferring to call them “biological controls” and noting that under the United Nations’ Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention, they are legitimate if they are approved by the government of the land in which they are used.

The mutated fungi can cause disease in a large number of crops…

The first Agent Green fungus is Fusarium oxysporum, a family of “wilting” fungi whose species attack everything from corn and cotton to basil to watermelon. The anti-coca fungus species, Fusarium Oxysporum f. sp. Erythroxyli, was discovered accidentally when it wiped out a test plot of coca being grown in Hawaii. From that strain, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed the strain “Isolate EN-4,” which is supposed to attack only the coca plant, and which the US and UN want to spray extensively in Colombia.

The use of fusarium oxysporum to eradicate marijuana in Florida was proposed in 1999, and was soundly rejected by state officials as being a threat to the environment and agriculture. Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection David Struhs wrote in an April 6, 1999 letter:

Fusarium species are capable of evolving rapidly... Mutagenicity is by far the most disturbing factor in attempting to use a Fusarium species as a bioherbicide. It is difficult, if not impossible, to control the spread of Fusarium species. The mutated fungi can cause disease in a large number of crops, including tomatoes, peppers, flowers, corn and vines, and are normally considered a threat to farmers as a pest, rather than as a pesticide. Fusarium species are more active in warm soils and can stay resident in the soil for years.

Despite the Florida rejection, the US and UN went ahead with plans to pressure the Colombian government to use the fungus. The Clinton administration at one point tried to tie a $1.3 billion aid package to Colombian government approval of the fungus, and only backed off under considerable international pressure.

In October 2000, the Colombian government formally rejected this portion of the US/UN “Plan Colombia,” which also includes ongoing widespread spraying of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s “Roundup.” Colombian Environment Minister Juan Mayr said, “The government consulted national experts on the subject and decided not to agree to test the fungus because it felt that any agent foreign to the country’s native ecosystem could pose a serious risk to the environment and to human health.” Colombia’s neighbors, Peru and Ecuador, have also expressed concern about the proposed use of the fungus causing them ecological and agricultural damage.

The Colombian government’s position does not make this a closed issue, though. Companies such as Ag/Bio Con Inc., which holds a patent on the process of attaching the fungus to seeds for aerial dispersal, may be expected to keep the issue alive. Ag/Bio Con Inc. is headed by Dr. David Sands who worked on fusarium oxysporum at Montana State University for the USDA. The USDA has already invested at least $23 million in this research. The UNDCP has not dropped its endorsement of the plan. The spraying plan in Colombia does, however, appear to be at least dormant at the present.

The second mycoherbicide being developed by the US is Pleospora Papaveracea, which attacks opium poppies. This fungus is being made in a laboratory in Uzbekistan at the Tashkent Institute of Genetics, Plants and Experimental Biology, and funded by a combination of the US, UK, and the UN Drug Control Program.

Because of the involvement of the British government in funding the anti-opium fungus, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has paid some attention to this issue. The BBC’s investigative program Panorama produced a report in October, 2000, “Britain’s Secret War on Drugs.” The program included critics who voiced concern about the possibility of eco-terrorism, noting that the cash-strapped institute might deal with private groups if the US and UK did not provide sufficient funding. “The fungus sounds like a silver bullet but it could easily become a poisoned chalice,” says Paul Rogers, a British plant pathologist. “Once you develop a technology to spread plant diseases intentionally, you are developing a technology which could easily be misused by bad people against legitimate food crops.”

“…the mycotoxins could lead to charges of biological warfare.”

Dr. John C. K. Daly, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, Washington, DC, warns that

…the mycotoxins could lead to charges of biological warfare by the fundamentalist regimes in Afghanistan and Iran. The United States has no domestic cultivation of poppies to eradicate. Thus, the development of the agent is for foreign use and might be seen by its intended clients as a biowar agent.

It is highly unlikely that either Burma or Afghanistan, which between them account for 90% of the target opium production, would give the US/UN permission to use the fungus in their countries, which means that this research can only be leading to a violation of the biological weapons convention, which could well incite retaliations in kind. There are so many pathogens already that attack common food crops (including, ironically many strains of fusarium oxysporum) that the technical possibility of biological warfare aimed at the food supply rather than directly at people is very real.

One of the leading non-profit groups tracking this issue, the Sunshine Project (www.sunshine-project.org), is also concerned about the environmental risks of releasing this genetically-engineered fungus in huge quantities. Their June 2001 press release states that leaked UNDCP research documents indicate that the fungus which they consider ready for use is not species-specific to the opium poppy, but also kills related poppy flowers, but that UNDCP considers this “adequate specificity.” The Project’s Susana Pimiento notes,

This dangerous attitude is consistent with what we know of UNDCP environmental science. The same UNDCP ‘experts’ who got the fungus work rolling in 1990 also concluded that 2, 4-D—a major ingredient of Agent Orange—has “low environmental impact” when used in crop eradication.

She further notes that a technical consultant on the project on behalf of the US, Dr. Michael Greaves, claims publicly that it “has never and will not be genetically manipulated” contrary to the claims of the chief Uzbek scientist working on the poppy-killing fungus who “has unequivocally stated that he plans to genetically engineer the anti-opium poppy fungus (Pleospora papaveracea) as necessary to increase its effectiveness.”

Further reading:

Sunshine Project web site, http://www.sunshine-project.org/

Fungus Considered As a Tool To Kill Coca In Colombia, New York Times, 07/06/2000, Vol. 149 Issue 51441, pA1

The Covert Biowar Against Drugs In Central Asia, Dr. John C. K. Daly, http://www.cacianalyst.org/Jan_3_2001/Covert_Biowar.htm

Fungus Versus Coca – UNDCP and the Biological War on Drugs in Colombia, Martin Jelsma, February 2000. http://www.tni.org/drugs/links/fungus.htm

Pleospora fungus. A biological weapon for the drugs war. James Robbins. Sunday, 1 October, 2000, BBC News Online. http://www.pcpafg.org/news/Afghan_News/Year2000/2000_10_02/%C2%A0West_funds_anti-opium_fungus.shtml

Fight the Fungus. Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2000, Vol. 15 Issue 3, p20

Operation eradicate. Kleiner, Kurt. New Scientist, 9/11/99, Vol. 163 Issue 2203, p20

Coca Killer. Kleiner, Kurt. New Scientist, 03/11/2000, Vol. 165 Issue 2229, p5

Colombia rejects use of fusarium fungus to eradicate illicit crops. BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, October 26, 2000 (transcript available in Lexis-Nexis online service; see a local academic library).

Synthesis/Regeneration home page | Synthesis/Regeneration 26 Contents