The Dr. Strangelove fringe of the drug warrior lobby is at it again. Dan Burton and Mark Souder, both Republican Bible Belt U.S. Congressmen from Indiana, are amending the drug czar office’s budget in an attempt to breathe Congressional life into a moribund Frankenstein’s monster scheme. They want to revive mycoherbicides (toxic fungi that kill plants) for use against drug crops. Even U.S. government drug enforcement officials have rejected the proposed mycoherbicides because of their toxicity to humans and the environment. Their use has also been banned throughout the Andes by the governments there.
The once-secret mycoherbicide program has a long history. The concept was first proposed during the 1970s and sounded like a good idea to naïve do-gooders and unschooled drug warriors. The government would develop a fungus that would only attack certain drug plants; it would be specific, and leave everything else healthy. It would kill the target marijuana, coca or poppy plants within a couple of weeks, but would linger in the soil and kill any successive plantings for several years. If none of the target plants were grown in the area where it had been applied, after a few years it would die off. The mycoherbicide “silver bullet” would banish illicit drug crops forever. All over the world. End of the drug problem for all time, they said…
Much of the original work was done secretly, mainly by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Department of Energy (DoE)-contracted scientists. The clandestine work focused on multiple strains of two major species of fungi, Fusarium oxysporum for marijuana and coca, and Pleospora papaveracea for opium poppy. US scientists also made genetically modified versions of Pleospora – souping it up with genes from Fusarium.
Peruvian campesinos from the Huallaga Valley in Peru with malformed chocolate that they say was due to the Fusariumepidemic of coca that swept through the region from the early 1980s through the 1990s. The origin of the epidemic is still unclear but there are many who believe that it was a U.S. experiment and that it was either sprayed secretly or that it was sold to unwitting farmers as fertilizer or pest killer. Most professionals believe that it was “natural” and exacerbated by poor farming practices. Whatever the origin, most reports indicate that it also attacked other plants, from Lemongrass to staple foods, and contaminated the soil for long periods. Campesinos also complained of unexpected deaths of family members. U.S. State Department cables from Lima complained of entire communities having to leave their lands because nothing would grow on them after the epidemic hit.
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2000
But the devil, as always, is in the details: the fungus does not just grab the target plant and wrestle it to the ground; it doesn’t act mechanically, but chemically. The mycoherbicide fungus acts as a living micro-chemical factory, producing toxic compounds called mycotoxins that it itself is immune to. When the fungus encounters a target life form, such as a plant root, it secretes these mycotoxins, which dissolve the target’s cell walls. The fungus then ingests the liquefied contents of the target cell and reproduces itself, moving into the dead cell space as an uninvited and deadly guest. From there it produces more mycotoxins and repeats the process with adjacent cells until it has taken over a substantial area of the plant. Since the fungus usually attacks through the roots, the plant’s stem withers and the plant dries out and dies. Unlike chemical herbicides which are made in a factory, applied to plants, and then degrade (some more than others), mycoherbicides can be considered as living chemical factories, always ready to kill and stunt.
The cell-dissolving “mycotoxins” that are produced by the proposed mycoherbicides were initially discovered after hundreds of thousands of people died due to internal hemorrhaging after eating bread made from Fusarium-contaminated overwintered grain during the mid-1940s in the Soviet Union. Soviet scientists isolated and identified the responsible Fusarium, cultivated it, and extracted from it a new series of toxins that were named the “trichothecenes” toxins, one of which was given the pleasant moniker “vomitoxin.” During the Cold War these potent and chemically stable mycotoxins were “weaponized”; mass-produced and stockpiled by the major powers for use in chemical warfare.
Another trichothecene toxin, fumonisin, was in the news a couple of years ago because Hispanic mothers had been eating Fusarium-contaminated corn tortillas. This resulted in a rash of children born brainless and with other birth defects along the Rio Grande River. In order to safeguard their populations, government agencies all over the world, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), spend millions checking grains and corn to make sure that these fungi or the toxins they produce do not contaminate food supplies.
And the fungus doesn’t just attack plants. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had openly funded some of the early research on Fusarium and marijuana during the 1970s at the same time the CIA and DoE were funding clandestine work, but they pulled out after finding that the fungus itself could infect and kill mammals, including humans with deficient immune systems – such as people with bad colds or suffering from exhaustion.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the USDA took over and repeated much of the earlier clandestine research done by the CIA and DoE and took the work much further, developing various means of mass-producing spores, of storage, and media for application of the fungus. Other countries did similar work. The USDA also did the obvious research to see how host-specific these fungi really were. That research showed that the various strains to be used to kill coca or marijuana also killed non-target plants. In fact, the Fusarium mycoherbicide could infect and kill plants of unrelated genera. In the case of the anti-opium Pleosporamycoherbicide, it attacks several species of poppy, including the ornamental poppy that contains no opium and decorates millions of gardens worldwide. And it doesn’t make distinctions between poppy grown for legal uses and illicit poppy.
Some of the early Soviet research showed that it is not only the living fungal tissue or spores that can linger in the soil for years. The mycotoxins that the fungus secretes can outlast those living cells. Many of these mycotoxins do not dissolve in water or degrade rapidly, so they stay put and poison the soil for many years, stunting future plant growth or even rendering contaminated areas agriculturally dead for years.
A Peruvian campesino inspects coca killed by Fusarium. The Fusariumepidemic that ravaged the Huallaga valley of Peru was called “seca seca” by the locals because once the fungus choked off the roots of the plant, it would dry out and wither away.
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2000
In 1999, the newly appointed Florida drug czar decided to float the idea of using mycoherbicides against Florida’s outdoor pot growing industry. His idea was blocked by extremely stiff opposition – not from a Cannabis growers union, but from Florida’s own Department of Environmental Protection, which brought up another major problem: the mutation issue. Fungi can mutate and change hosts, especially Fusarium, and the species being proposed had a long history of causing epidemics in other plants. The more you massively apply a fungus, the more likely it is to mutate. Mycoherbicide deployment was rejected for Florida.
Also during the late 1990s, mycoherbicides were being proposed as part of Plan Colombia, the multibillion dollar US counterdrug/counterinsurgency (and now counterVenezuela) program. Perhaps, Congress thought, the Colombians would allow what U.S. citizens in Florida would not? (The U.S. Secretary of State at the time, Ms. Madeleine Albright, actually stated on the record that she was trying to apply mycoherbicides in Colombia under the cover of a United Nations program. The UN balked, saying that it didn’t want anything to do with this “American idea.”)
In 2000, there was growing criticism of the mycoherbicide plan, both in the United States and abroad, particularly in Latin America. An educational website, “Mycoherbicide.net” (now mycoherbicide.info) was created (by this author), detailing the criticisms of the program, and an alphabet soup of U.S. NGOs such as Earth Justice, the Amazon Alliance, the Colombian Human Rights Committee, the Institute for Policy Studies, the National Organization for the Repeal of the Marijuana Laws, the Latin America Working Group, the Washington Office on Latin America, and especially the Sunshine Project added to the chorus of the opposed. Outside the U.S., besides the U.N., many countries expressed open hostility to the idea and this was reflected in their press. In the case of Latin America, the U.S.’s desire to ram mycoherbicides down the throats of the Colombians was a major topic not only in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, but “downstream” in Brazil as well.
But Burton and his fellow drug warriors Hastert, Souder, Hyde, Rohrabacher, and the rest of the “mycoherbicide cheering committee,” continued to back the scheme and Plan Colombia passed in August, 2000. Then-President Clinton signed the legislation, but using some very muddy language, he “waived” – blocked – the use of mycoherbicides in Colombia. Why did Clinton stop the mycoherbicide plan? Because, months earlier, he had received a letter of warning from a Nobel Prize laureate he respected (and who confirmed this to the author but asked that his name be withheld). The Nobel prizewinner stated that the use of mycoherbicides – especially in a wartime situation such as that of Colombia (or now in Afghanistan) would constitute a unilateral U.S. entrance into biological warfare. In response to the letter, Clinton ordered a National Security Council meeting to review the issue. The result of the meeting – which was also interagency – confirmed the Nobel laureate’s apprehension. Clinton was not to go down in history as the U.S. President who brought biological warfare to a troubled world.
At the same time, a rebellion against mycoherbicides was brewing in “America’s backyard.” A week or so after the Clinton “waiver,” at a meeting of the governments of the Andean Community of Nations in Lima, representatives of the environmental entities (known by their Spanish initials “CAAAM”) of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela “rejected” the use of mycoherbicides in an agreement that banned Fusarium eradication throughout the Andes. Bolivia had already passed domestic legislation banning anything but manual drug crop eradication, and Peru and Ecuador followed suit with presidential edicts that banned chemical or biological eradication schemes.
By the end of 2000, the mycoherbicide program appeared to be dead, but behind the scenes, holdouts in the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) – an entity of the State Department – were still pushing the idea, as were some officials in the Drug Czar’s office (ONDCP). Some funding of research programs with Pleospora with an aim to eradicate poppy in Afghanistan was still going on in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics, paid for by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and possibly with British and INLfunding. A little later both UNODC and the British got cold feet and by the end of 2000, most of the U.S. government entities involved in eradication were also opposed. The USDA, the Department of Defense (DoD), DEA, EPA and CIA were all solidly against the idea.
In the State Department, things were also changing. For years, whole sections at the State Department, including ambassadors, entities that deal with the environment, as well as most of INL (especially those working in the field) had been opposed to it. But there were a couple of true believers, namely Rand Beers and Bobby Charles. But in 2003, Rand Beers, one of the mycoherbicide program’s stalwart supporters, left the State Department’s INL to work on the Kerry campaign (showing that Democrats have erred as much as Republicans on this issue). In 2005, Bobby Charles was removed when Dr. Rice took the reigns of power after he insulted the British allies’ inability to control the opium trade in Afghanistan. With the removal of Mr. Charles, there was no longer anyone at the State Department who was still promoting mycoherbicides.
By 2005, within the US government, only ONDCP appeared to still be supporting the use of mycoherbicides, but in reality the organization had already changed its position after hiring a resident scientist, but had not issued any statements to that effect. The change became obvious at a May 11, 2005 House International Relations Committee hearing when the pro-mycoherbicide Dan Burton asked the US Drug Czar, John Walters why the ONDCP wasn’t testing mycoherbicides. Here is the exchange:
Dan Burton: Well, why aren’t you testing it, then?John Walters: Well, also because the controversy around mycoherbicides is such that it is likely to create an environment – when we already have an effective herbicide [Roundup] – concern about other agents being introduced to the environment. The Colombian government has also said that it is not interested. Again, it is not clear that this particular organism is specific to coca… If you were to drop [spray] it – and it is not specific to coca – it could cause considerable damage to the environment which in Colombia is very delicate. In order to start testing this [mycoherbicide] in an open area, it is suggested that one would be using it… Again, when you spray a foreign substance in areas where people are farming – in proximity to people and farm animals, you have to be sure it is safe. And you have to have, if you are going to do this in a democratic environment, you have to have the people’s confidence that it is safe…
Burton was clearly angered by this exchange, irrefutable evidence that all of the U.S. government had decided against mycoherbicides. Less than a month later he and his colleague Mark Souder of the mycoherbicide congressional cheering committee added an amendment to ONDCP’s Reauthorization Act to urge the study of mycoherbicides. According to the daily press bulletin of the Washington think tank Inter-American Dialog, “Burton’s amendment instructs the Director of the ONDCP to present Congress—within 90 days of the law’s enactment – a plan of action to [ensure] that an expedited, complete, and thorough peer review of the science of mycoherbicide as a means of illicit drug crop elimination is conducted by the appropriate government scientific research entity.’”
We can only hope for the unlikely – that Congress will come to its senses – or that, if the bill passes, the rest of the U.S. government and the scientists involved will be able to hold the line once again over the Congressional Dr. Strangeloves embarking on a dangerous course of biological warfare that will put the whole world at risk.
Jeremy Bigwood is a frequent contributor to Narco News and was a professorat both sessions of the School of Authentic Journalism. Before Bigwood worked in journalism, he published several peer-reviewed scientific papers in the mycological and chemical literature on fungal toxins. In 2000, he was awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Research and Writing Grant to study the U.S. government mycoherbicide program. Later that year he was the technical advisor to the Andean Community of nations meeting which banned the use of the Fusarium mycoherbicide throughout the Andean countries. He is based in Washington, D.C., and his work on mycoherbicides is presently funded the Fusarium mycoherbicide throughout the Andean countries. He is based in Washington, D.C., and his work on mycoherbicides is presently funded through a TIDES grant.