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US experiments in Southern countries using microbial fungus to eradicate narcotic crops have raised great concern over the effects on human health, the environment and legitimate crops. This microbial fungus use is prohibited in the United States itself.

By Chakravarthi Raghavan

Third World Network Features

Geneva: An international non-profit group has called on the Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), meeting in Nairobi on 15-26 May, to act to halt experiments abroad by the United States to use 'Agent Green' microbes to kill narcotic crops.

In a briefing paper for delegates to the 5th COP meeting, the 'Sunshine Project', a non-profit group based in Seattle and Hamburg, has complained that the US government was planning the testing and widespread application of microbial fungus to attack plants producing coca, opium poppy and cannabis (marijuana).

This microbial fungus use, the group notes, is prohibited in the United States itself, while the UN General Assembly in 1998 had specifically turned down proposals for the use of pathogens to kill narcotic crops.

The microbial pathogens, the Sunshine Project says, pose risks to human health and to biodiversity, and their use is being promoted abroad - in Asia and the Amazon regions - by the United States as part of its war against narcotics. The pathogens have been tested only for their effectiveness against 'weeds', and not for safety for human health and the environment.

The NGO group says that the US has begun conducting test programmes on fungi (Pleospora sp. and others) to kill opium poppy and marijuana. In the Andes and western Amazon, the US is planning testing and widespread application of a fungus that attacks coca - Fusarium oxysporum, f. sp. Exythoroxilum.

These pathogens threaten human health and biodiversity in the Americas and Asia.

The US Congress, the briefing document says, has recently appropriated $23 million for development of the pathogen agents and, in the Americas, is linking the fungal pathogen plan to the US aid programmes.

These anti-crop fungus programmes have been labelled as 'bio-control' research to eliminate weeds, the NGO says.

'While plants producing narcotics are certainly undesirable, they are not "weeds" by any logical policy or regulatory definition. And "bio-control" is a misnomer for these pathogens. Legitimate bio-controls protect cultivated crops, but the US pathogens kill them.'

And by appropriating the language of a legitimate branch of science, biological controls, the US programme has put the reputation of a growing and promising field of research at risk.

The briefing document points out that in 1989, an expert group working on law enforcement and drug control issues for the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs first suggested the use of biological agents to kill narcotic crops. Though nothing came of this, the US unilaterally pursued scientific development of the idea, with limited bilateral cooperation particularly from former Soviet research institutions in newly independent Central Asian states.

In 1997, at US prodding, the Vienna-based UN Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) acted on the 1989 recommendation of experts and incorporated it into a global plan for eradication of illicit crops, SCOPE (Strategy for Coca and Opium Poppy Elimination).

But the UN General Assembly in 1998 rejected the SCOPE move, and the idea of using narcotic crop pathogens was eliminated from the multilateral agenda. But the US, and some in the UNDCP, 'seem to have clung to the idea and are on the verge of implementing it', says the Sunshine Project.

But since the US unilateral push for the use of these pathogens risks political exposure, the US Government has been pushing others to follow its lead. In a 1999 State Department cable (obtained under the Freedom of Information Act), the US Secretary of State has exhorted the UNDCP 'to find more support for fungal eradication, and to solicit funds from other governments, in order to avoid the perception that this is solely a US Government initiative'.

But there has been little support from other countries, the Sunshine Project notes. While the UK provided some small supplemental funding for US-sponsored experiments with opium poppy fungus in Central Asia in the mid-1990s, no other donor country has responded to the US calls for support.

The NGO briefing paper notes that with the exception of manual and mechanical plant removal, crop eradication programmes using chemical herbicides have been controversial. As early as 1988, the UN ECOSOC pointed out that drug eradication programmes should not use methods harming the environment or humans.

Some countries like Bolivia, Peru and Thailand have laws or implemented policies banning chemical eradication because of the negative impacts of herbicides on the environment, human health and legitimate crops. Civil society opposition to such eradication has been intense.

Applied in massive quantities from the air, such chemical herbicides as glyphosate (RoundUp), tebuthiuron (Spike) and hexaninone harm humans and biodiversity.

But the US and the UNDCP maintain that herbicides used in specified ways are 'environmentally safe and non-toxic for humans'.

But the US finds even these herbicides not strong enough, and is promoting fungal eradication to create plant sprays more lethal and long-lasting than glyphosate.

Recently, Peru passed a law banning the use of biological agents in coca eradication. The UNDCP admitted in January this year that Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have refused to carry out field-testing of opium poppy myoherbicide. And in a report for the Colombian Ombudsman for the Environment, leading Colombian scientists have said the use of such agents in Colombia represents 'a great danger both for humans as well as the Colombian environment and biodiversity'.

The Sunshine Project notes that the use of fungal narcotic control has been halted in Florida, the world's top producer of cannabis. A private company, Ag/Bio Con, which is connected to the United States Department of Agriculture, proposed using a cannabis-killing strain of Fusarium oxysporum in Florida.

But the head of the Florida department of environment protection squashed the idea, saying this species was capable of evolving rapidly, and its mutagenicity is by far the most disturbing factor in its use as a bio-herbicide - it's impossible to control the spread of the Fusarium species.

The mutated fungi, it was noted, could cause disease in a large number of crops - tomatoes, peppers, flowers, corn and vines - and is normally considered a threat to farmers as a pest, and not as a pesticide. The Fusarium species is more active in warm soils and can stay resident in the soil for years. This longevity and enhanced activity in Florida weather conditions could lead to an increased risk of mutagenicity.

Despite this assessment, the Sunshine Project charges that the US is pressing the programme to the point when it is close to large releases. Field-tests are being conducted in Central Asia and there is enormous pressure on Colombia to sign an agreement for testing of the coca-killing fungus F. oxysporum.

The potential target acreage is in excess of one million hectares, and the US envisions its wide use in Asia and Latin America.

The US claims that the pathogens are environmentally safe, are host-specific and don't present any danger to humans. But these claims are dubious, charges the Sunhine Project.

Biodiversity concerns include the impact of altering fungi populations on highly fragile ecosystems, the impact on non-target plant species, on soil ecology and pollinators, difficulties of control or withdrawal once released, toxicity problems, lack of clarity about the fungi's 'natural occurrence' and origin, and the possibility of future introduction of living modified organism pathogens.

The US pathogen-testing has been done primarily to assess their effectiveness in killing plants, not for their environmental or human safety, nor have the pathogens been proved to be safe to other species. Testing for host specificity has been very narrow, and has not included close relatives of target species.

Testing has also disregarded complex and fragile ecosystems in much of South and South-East Asia and the Andes and Amazon basins. And in some US testing, the 'host-specific' fungi have attacked both related and non-related species.

The NGO paper also says that the Agrias (Agrias Claudina) butterfly, which depends on coca's wild relatives in the Amazonian rainforests, would be endangered.

The Nairobi meeting of the COP, the NGO briefing paper suggests, should declare that the development of any pathogen to deliberately kill any cultivated crop is contrary to the objectives of the CBD. It should also assess potential impacts of narcotic plant pathogens on agriculture.

The COP should also convey to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs prior to its March 2001 session the concerns of the COP over such international eradication programmes for their effects on biological diversity and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.


About the writer:

Chakravarthi Raghavan is Chief Editor of SUNS (South-North Development Monitor), a daily bulletin, and Third World Network's representative in Geneva.

When reproducing this feature, please credit Third World Network Features and (if applicable) the cooperating magazine or agency involved in the article, and give the byline. Please send us cuttings.

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