Fungus could destroy cocaine plants

March 07, 2000

The latest weapon in the war against drugs may soon be spread on the coca fields of Colombia. The UN International Drug Control Programme is negotiating with the government of Colombia to conduct open field trials of a strain of the fungus Fusarium oxysporum that attacks coca plants, the source of cocaine.

The funding, about $23 million, would come from the US and the UN. But activists say the fungus could damage the environment and harm Colombia's economy.

Fusarium species are common in many parts of the world. Different strains attack different plant root systems, causing a variety of diseases in crops. The coca-attacking strain was discovered at a US government research station in Hawaii after it infected an experimental coca plot. "I think there's a good possibility it will work. But it's never been field-tested outside of Hawaii," says Bryan Bailey, a plant pathologist with the US Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland, who has worked with the fungus.

Governments in Colombia and other drug-producing countries such as Peru and Bolivia already use chemical herbicides to kill coca plants, but the farmers simply move to different areas and plant new crops. The US government is pushing this latest effort because fungi such as Fusarium should rapidly become endemic across a wide area once applied and can survive in the soil for years.

But last year plans to use a similar fungus to kill marijuana plants in Florida raised a storm of protest from environmentalists. They pointed out that the fungus might attack other plants besides their targets. "The main concern is that this is introducing yet another agent in the forced eradication programme that has done enough damage already. It will lead to more deforestation and more migration, displacing people even deeper into the Amazon," says Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute, the Amsterdam-based think tank that released a draft copy of the UN-Colombia research agreement.

The aim of the trials is to make sure the fungus affects only coca plants and to find an easy way to manufacture and distribute it, such as coating grains of rice which are spread from a plane. A State Department official, who asked to remain anonymous, says the Colombian government is still considering the agreement.

Bailey says it is likely that the fungus will attack only coca plants. Tests in greenhouses showed that 50 related plants were not infected by the fungus. But environmentalists fear that massive applications of the fungus could do other damage.

According to Jeremy Bigwood, the Washington-based journalist who broke the news of the agreement, coca farmers in Peru claim that a Fusarium outbreak there recently damaged coca plants and spread to food crops. But Bailey says investigators who looked into the reports found that the food crops were not infected with Fusarium after all.
Author: Kurt Kleiner

New Scientist issue: 11th March 2000


New Scientist

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