The Konformist

August 2000

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Spring 1998

Covert Action Quarterly





Jim Hogshire

The USDA has been tinkering with the genetic code of a dangerous fungus trying to target and wipe out the Andean coca and poppy crops. But if anything goes wrong, the fusarium fungus may end up destroying food crops and a whole lot more.

This past August, a piece of good news came from the maze of nameless buildings at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Beltsville, Maryland. Dr. Deborah R. Fravel, a plant pathologist at the laboratory for Biocontrol of Plant Diseases (BCPD) had turned the tables on a nasty, tomato-eating fungus called Fusarium oxysporum. She had developed a "benign" strain of the fungus that "inoculates" the tomatoes, much as a vaccine protects a child against certain diseases.

And the fungus is nasty. A virulent mutation of fusarium, called "Race 3" has been a bane to Florida and Georgia farmers who have trouble controlling it with even the strongest fungicides. Around the world, fusarium also destroys watermelons, chickpeas, basil, bananas, and hundreds of other crops. The blight, in all its myriad permutations, can lie dormant in the soil for years without a host plant and then springs to life, causing devastating "wilt disease." Fear of introducing the disease is one reason Japan is loath to accept US produce. While some strains of this fungus are relatively harmless to most plants, other types of fusarium can produce mycotoxins poisonous to humans.

The Fungus Among Us

But the USDA press release was warm and fuzzy describing "good" fungi "helping plants to help themselves."

There was no mention of Fravel's part in dozens of projects aimed at producing a lethal, but "natural" herbicide from the same fungus for a very different purpose. Fravel's efforts are part of a cabal of scientists working hand in hand with the DEA, the State Department, and foreign governments to produce an herbicide designed to effect the drug war's Final Solution: total elimination of the world's illicit coca crops and opium poppies - the same goal recently announced by the United Nations.

Fravel's boss at the BCPD, Dr. Robert D. Lumsden, is a prominent figure in the eradication research program. Lumsden's work with mutant strains of Fusaruim oxysporum over the past few years has taken him to sites around the world and across the country. At the University of Montana in Bozeman, he and another ARS plant pathologist, Dr. Bryan A. Bailey, are in the midst of a five-year study of the toxic effects of F. oxysporum and other fungi on opium poppies and marijuana. According to one of Lumsden's reports, unlike chemical herbicides, "these naturally-occurring fungi are safe for humans and the environment."

Lumsden worked with Bailey to develop a granular formulation fusarium mycotoxin, for testing at sites "foreign and domestic." A government coca field in Hawaii was eventually used to test the mycotoxin, along with traditional chemical herbicides. A 1995 study of fusarium herbicide showed "significant kill" of coca bushes while other studies indicate a 60 to 90 percent kill-rate for opium poppies. When scientists no-ticed that ants sometimes carried away the poison pellets, Fravel and Bailey looked for ways to make them more attractive to the insects - so they would take the herbicide deeper into the soil. The ants (which preferred their pellets flavored with olive oil) were found to carry the fungus both "outside and inside their bodies."

Changing Genes

Later research by Bailey and others identified the gene responsible for one strain's deadly effects on coca. They then developed a way "to allow alteration of the gene expression." They began to play with the fungus' genetic code.

The ARS's long-standing interest in manipulating the fusarium fungus is revealed in a series of studies it commissioned. One experiment set out "to construct a genetic map of Fusarium moniliforme" and "to identify mutants that affect the synthesis of" its mycotoxins. Another study proposed "the development of strains with enhanced pathogenicity" that could wipe out coca plants "using molecular genetic manipulations involving fungal proteins." The ARS branch in Ft. Detrick, Maryland, carried out the "successful transformation of Fusarium oxysporum" by "DNA sequence encoding." Claiming that it would have "limited environmental impact," another ARS study acknowledged that a "biocontrol strategy for coca" using Fusarium oxssporum had been "developed and successfully field tested in small scale trials."

Researchers hint that they took their cue for the mycotoxin from a naturally occurring outbreak of fusarium wilt destroying crops in Peru's Upper Huallaga valley. An ongoing ARS project, begun in 1993, noted:

"Studies of a naturally-occurring epidemic of fusarium wilt in Peru have been concluded which verify that the epidemic is progressing and causing significant disease in the coca producing regions of Peru. Already, the natural epidemic of fusarium wilt in the coca producing areas of Peru is causing farmers to abandon their fields. A protein produced by Fusarium oxysporum which is toxic to E. coca has been purified and its gene cloned. The data indicate that a bioherbicide using Fusarium oxysporum which is effective against coca can be produced and proof of concept field tests are being initiated."

As early as 1991, Peruvian campesinos testified that they witnessed helicopters carrying DEA agents and Peruvian police dropping pellets containing the fungus onto coca fields; however, there is no other solid evidence to support the allegation that the pellets actually contained fusariurn. Other press accounts allege a direct link between the DEA and the use of fusarium:

"The US Drug Enforcement Administration resumed full cooperation with the Peruvian police in 1994, when [the] strategy shifted to destroying illegal coca plantations using a mushroom known scientifically as fusarium and colloquially among the peasants as 'the coca-eater.'" Because there are so many strains or races of fusarium, it may not be possible to determine if this outbreak affecting coca and other crops is a result of natural causes or human intervention.

Eat Stuff and Die

The problem with creating any "bug" that will eat just one thing and then obediently cease to exist is obvious. All life-forms mutate and adapt, especially a simple organism like a fungus; sooner or later it will learn to eat something else. A similar situation occurred in 1971, when Richard Nixon misinterpreted a theory about "an insect which could consume poppy crops" and then die. Nixon, preoccupied by this imaginary weevil, by then dubbed the "screw worm" (because it was supposed to die after intercourse), asked Congress for funding. When Nixon's advisors could not be assured that this "screw worm" would be host specific - i.e., it might eat the worid's supply of poppy crops and then adapt to another host, such as rice or wheat - they lost interest in the project. Eventually even these knuckleheads dropped the idea.

But research into doper bugs continued. In 1996, Bailey, Lumsden, and Fravel - working on a project at North Carolina State University in Raleigh - wrote that their finely tuned pathogen "kills only coca and does not harm other plants." A recently launched study, however, suggests that the fusarium formulas are still not specific enough. One ARS investigator is studying the "ubiquitous species-complex of Fusarium oxysponum [that] is currently being investigated as a biological control agent. However, this fungus encompasses broad genetic variability that has not yet been delineated." There is, the researcher continues, "still a need to characterize genetically the strains that attach Erthrroxylon [coca] and/or Papaver [poppies] as well as those that occur in soils and on crop plants growing in close proximity." Translation: the innumerable strains of the fungus could possibly attack adjacent crops and do God-knows-what to everything else.

Perversely, the government touts the fungus project as environmentally friendly because it avoids the use of chemicals. For years, the US has browbeaten Andean pro-ducer countries into using US-produced herbicides such as Roundup (glyphosate), and to kill off the "source" of the US drug problem. The Andean nations have balked, arguing that US consumer demand drives production, not the other way around. With the threat of withholding millions in aid dollars to bolster its side, Washington has demanded eradication. Local growers are then left not only without a cash crop, but sick from the toxic effects of the herbicides.

Protests over the health effects of herbicides prompted Bolivia and Peru to stand up to Washington and prohibit Roundup--like herbicides for coca and poppy eradication. In early March 1996, Colombia abruptly halted herbicide fumigation in retaliation for being "decertified" for not complying with US drug war demands. Humans exposed to Monsanto Corporation's Roundup - the current chemical of choice - can suffer damage to the stomach, heart, kidneys, lungs and skin. Glyphosate, according to a 1993 study by the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health, was the third most commonly-reported cause of pesticide illness among agricultural workers. Another study from the Berkeley school found that it was the most frequently reported cause of pesticide illness among landscape maintenance workers. As a drug eradication chemical, glyphosate has another problem: it can be washed off for 8 hours after it is sprayed on, making it vulnerable to rain - and farmers who rush into the freshly poisoned fields to wash the toxins off their crops.

Armed with the more potent herbicide Spike (tebuthiuron), the US is now pushing to use that defoliant in the drug war. Manufactured by Dow AgroSciences (formerly DowElanco and then Eli Lilly before that merger), the use of tebuthiuron has been hawked in Congress by Rep. Dan Bunon (R-IN) - a longtime recipient of money from both Indianapolis based-Eli Lilly and Dow.

While killer fungi and many poisonous herbicides are not approved for use in the US, people in developing countries often have no say in what toxins are released in their communities. If some US officials have their way unilateral decision-making could become the norm.

At a hearing he chaired on "certification" of nations in the drug war, Dan Burton told the State Department's narcotics point man, Robert Gelbard, how to handle countries that refused to be defoliated: "Tell the president [sic] of Peru and Bolivia at about 5:00 in the morning, 'We've got a bunch of aircraft carriers out here, and we're coming down through those valleys, and we're gonna drop this stuff, this tebuthiuron...' I think we should consider, if this really is a war on drugs, doing it unilaterally and violating the territorial boundaries of those countries and dropping that stuff. Now, I know that doesn't sit well with the State Department, but either we deal with it or our kids continue to suffer and our society continues to let this cancer grow."

Whether "our" kids should be "protected" by poisoning "their" kids, however, is a policy issue that seems to escape US drug warriors. In their zeal to sound ever tougher on drug issues, Washington policy makers - together with fearless scientists eager to test their theories on other people's communities - may soon have a new biological doomsday weapon to unleash on their southern neighbors. At best, fusarium could become the latest bit of humiliation unilaterally rammed down the throat of Andean nations. At worst, the fungus could run amok unleashing the modern day equivalent of the Great Potato Famine.

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