Pubdate: Wed, 03 May 2000
Source: MoJo Wire (US Web)
Copyright: 2000 Foundation for National Progress
Contact:  731 Market Street, Suite 600, San Francisco, CA 94103
Fax: (415) 665-6696
Authors: Sharon Stevenson and Jeremy Bigwood
Note: Sharon Stevenson is a freelance journalist who has lived and worked 
in Peru for eleven years. Jeremy Bigwood is an ethnobotanist and journalist 
based in Washington D.C.
Also: Research support for this article was provided by the John D. and 
Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.


The US is strong-arming Colombia into unleashing the latest weapon in the 
war on drugs: a powerful new herbicide. But along with killing coca plants, 
the toxic fungus may pose serious dangers to the environment and human 
health -- threats so compelling that Florida has suspended plans to test 
the fungus for its own anti-drug efforts.

The big American suddenly stood up, leaned over the table and said to the 
Colombian in a low voice, "You'd better be careful not to talk to the press!"

Dr. David C. Sands, scientist and entrepreneur, was meeting with advisors 
to the Colombian Ministry of the Environment last March to push a new 
drug-war weapon marketed by his company: a special toxic fungus which would 
kill coca plants. The Colombian scientist who raised Sands' hackles had 
pointed out that the fungus could also attack humans with weakened immune 
systems -- a condition common among the often undernourished and generally 
unhealthy poor coca farmers and workers in the tropical rain forests of 
Colombia, where Sands wants to carry out a massive spraying program. "He 
didn't care," said the Colombian, who asked not to be named.

Sands is not the only party pushing this new biological weapon. The US 
Congress is demanding that Colombia apply the controversial fungus in order 
to receive $1.6 billion in emergency bailout funds for Colombia's 
antidrug/counterinsurgency strategy called Plan Colombia. Last March, Rep. 
Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., tacked on an amendment to the pending aid bill 
requiring President Clinton to certify that the Colombian government "has 
agreed to and is implementing a strategy to eliminate Colombia's total coca 
and opium poppy production" using, among other means "tested, 
environmentally safe mycoherbicides." Myco  fungus; herbicide  plant killer.

Steve Peterson, an official with the State Department's International 
Narcotics and Law Enforcement division, says they want to see 
mycoherbicides used because they would be "more cost effective and more 
environmentally friendly" than chemical herbicides.

The trouble is that abundant evidence indicates that the only mycoherbicide 
being considered for this purpose, Fusarium oxysporum, may in fact, in 
massive application, pose serious dangers to the environment and human 
health. Florida has put an indefinite hold on its plans to test the fungus 
for its own antidrug efforts after environmentalists and a state official 
warned that it could mutate, spread rapidly, and kill off other plants 
including food crops. And for over a decade, coca growers in Peru have 
accused the US of secretly applying the fungus there to attack coca plants 
- -- in the process also harming food crops and farm animals. Moreover, the 
fungus can, under certain circumstances, cause lethal infections in humans 
with weakened immune systems. None of this, however, has dimmed US 
government enthusiasm for the project -- nor that of Sands' corporation, 
which stands to profit if the fungus is adopted for widespread use.

Years of US-funded aerial spraying have so far failed to even slow 
Colombia's thriving industries of coca plants, which produce the raw 
material for cocaine, and opium poppies, which are used to make heroin. The 
country's cocaine and heroin production has more than doubled since 1995.

The New York Times reported in early May that US-funded spraying of the 
herbicide glyphosate (marketed as Roundup by Monsanto Company) may have 
exposed scores of Colombian villagers to harmful toxins and damaged nondrug 
crops. But the proposed Fusarium program, experts say, could unleash far 
worse consequences.

The UN Cover

The Congressional hardball mandating fungus use follows a less coercive 
approach to push Colombia into playing guinea pig for the first real 
on-the-ground testing of the toxic Fusarium oxysporum strain called EN-4. 
The first approach was through a United Nations Drug Control 
Program-proposed project to establish a research station to conduct field 
trials for eventual large-scale application of the fungus. Although the UN 
representative in Colombia, Klaus Nyholm, said the draft agreement is "not 
what the Colombians want," it certainly reflects what the US State 
Department wants and has sold to Congress. The proposed agreement turns 
over results of at least 12 years of research by the US Department of 
Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) to refine the use of 
fungi against narcotic "weeds." The agreement openly takes political cover 
under the UN umbrella. A May 1999 Action Request by Secretary of State 
Madeleine Albright pushes the UNDCP to get other countries to ante up "in 
order to avoid a perception that this is solely a (US government) initiative."

Which, of course, it is. "It was an American interest," said Nyholm. "It 
wasn't my idea.

While the concept of using herbicides against weeds and camouflaging 
foliage (such as Agent Orange in Vietnam) is not novel, using them against 
crops is. Ironically, the great majority of research on Fusarium focuses on 
combating it as a major food-crop killer. The soil-borne mold infects crops 
by secreting toxins into their roots, which then putrefy and dissolve the 
plant's cells, often eventually killing them, or worse, poisoning humans or 
animals who feed on contaminated plants or plant products. The fungus can 
survive in soil for years.

The idea of using a fungal herbicide to kill drug plants began in the 1970s 
after a fungus, later identified as EN-4, began to kill off the coca at a 
soft drink research plantation in Kauai, Hawaii. In 1986, the ARS began a 
full-blown research project, classified for a time, to find a biological 
agent to kill coca. By 1991, the government had invested at least $14 
million in it. Congress has now given the State Department $23 million 
originally slated for mycoherbicide development in the US, which State 
plans to pass on to the UN.

By getting the UN to take on the fungus project, the US not only gets 
political cover, but makes it harder to get information about the program. 
Unlike the US government, the UN has no Freedom of Information Act 
guaranteeing outsiders access to official documents.

The US Congress' arm-twisting to make Colombia use the fungus even before 
it has been tested for environmental and human safety raises the 
fundamental issue of informed consent by the Colombian people. The program 
could easily be construed as having a nonpeaceful purpose, thus 
contravening the international Biological Weapons Convention and morphing 
it from "biocontrol" into "biowarfare." While both the US and UN stridently 
object to the latter term, the secrecy surrounding the project -- the lack 
of independent monitoring of the US fungus development, the lack of media 
exposure to the project, and the classified nature of the development 
program in its early years -- leave serious questions unanswered.

Colombia Targeted

When we visited Colombia in late March to research this article, the UN 
proposal had already landed in the Ministry of Environment, which must 
approve its use. At a meeting with ranking officials, however, it became 
clear that the Ministry had precious little to go on in making their 
decision. The vice minister of the environment and her aides gathered 
around the conference table were asking us, the journalists, to supply them 
with information. Neither the US government nor the UN agency pushing the 
plan had given the Ministry the detailed available documentation on the 
genesis and development of Fusarium oxysporum that they would need to help 
decide if it was safe to apply. Ministry staffers were reduced to trying to 
cull information from the Internet. What they had found there was evidence 
that Fusarium oxysporum could mutate to gobble other plants and could be 
dangerous to animal and human health.

Ministry advisers also told us that Peruvian organizations had not 
responded to queries on the fungus epidemic that had affected coca fields 
there. Since 1991, Peruvian coca growers have charged that they have seen 
helicopters fly over their coca fields emitting a brown or white cloud 
which caused their coca and food crops to die and sickened their farm 
animals. Many of the farmers believe these helicopters are part of an 
American antidrug campaign, a charge the US denies. Research in 1993 by a 
US-funded Peruvian scientist showed that many of the food crops were 
infected by the same fungus species that had killed the coca.

There are many troubling aspects to the UN proposal. It maintains that EN-4 
already exists in Colombia, which is convenient since introducing a foreign 
pathogen to the country would present a problem under international law; UN 
representative Nyholm, however, says there is no EN-4 in Colombia. The 
proposal admits that fungus development, large-scale production, storage, 
and application techniques for Fusarium already exist; now, it says, all 
that's needed are "large-scale" field trials to compare different 
formulations and application rates, and assess the environmental impact. 
Yet it doesn't specify how they would measure the safety of these trials. 
Nowhere in the draft is any noninvolved stakeholder monitor established to 
oversee research and development in Colombia. And while the vice minister 
says they have yet to approve the fungus, the draft proposal and State 
Department "Action Request" both make clear that someone in the Colombian 
government has already demonstrated a willingness to forge ahead, with or 
without the Environment Ministry's approval.

This is no small matter in Colombia, home to the world's second most 
diverse biosystem -- one that is uniquely vulnerable to the potential 
threat posed by the massive spraying of a toxic, mutative fungus in vast 
swaths of jungle.

Will It Really Attack Only Coca?

Department of Agriculture research documents on the fungus explicitly avow 
that it is environmentally safe and would attack only coca. But Colombian 
researchers and scientists are far from convinced -- especially given 
Fusarium's notorious tendency to mutate.

Colombia is no stranger to Fusarium, a genus that includes several strains 
besides EN-4. "There's a group of scientists who've been working [to 
combat] Fusarium here for a long time," said Vice Minister Martinez. In 
fact a major epidemic of one Fusarium strain hit the flower growers in the 
plains of Bogotá a few years ago, and as a result, growers could no longer 
plant in the contaminated earth -- they were forced to switch to soilless 
hydroponics systems.

US scientists also maintain that the EN-4 strain will only attack plants 
within the genus Erythroxylum, of which coca is one. But there are over 200 
other plant species within that genus, many of which are found in Colombia, 
which EN-4 could then kill besides its intended target. Plants of the 
Erythroxylum genus are also used by indigenous populations for medicinal 
and religious-cultural practices would also be at risk.

Moreover, a 1995 International Institute of Biological Control report on 
the ARS fungus program admitted that non-Erythroxylum North American plants 
under stress could be infected by EN-4. Surprisingly, this seems to be the 
only research testing EN-4's ability to attack other plants. Luis Parra, an 
herbicide expert recommended to us by the American Embassy who oversees the 
glyphosate spraying of coca and opium in Colombia, says he has "a lot of 
doubts" about Fusarium. "I don't believe in the specificity of these 
organisms," he said. "It is very different to apply an herbicide (such as 
glyphosate) that has a known and predictable and undeniable risk, than to 
apply a microbe (such as a mycoherbicide) where the risks are still unknown."

Risks Extend To Human Health

While the US continues to murmur its "environmentally safe" mantra, Eduardo 
Posada, head of the Colombian Center for International Physics, believes 
that Fusarium can be devastating to people with lowered resistance due to 
immunological diseases or malnutrition -- common conditions among the 
farmers who often live near the coca fields that would be sprayed with the 

"The mortality rate for people infected by Fusarium is 76 percent," wrote 
Posada in a letter to the minister of environment. He lists the scientific 
literature indicating that Fusarium toxins are "highly toxic" to animals 
and humans, and that the use of ants to spread the fungus (research 
actually done by ARS scientists), could cause the ecosystem to be affected 
much faster than imagined.

None of that, however, appears to trouble David Sands.

Pecuniary Interests? Presenting Dr. Sands

Vice Minister Claudia Martinez was ordered by the Colombian ambassador in 
Washington to receive Dr. David C. Sands, a professor at Montana State 
University in Bozeman and the vice president of Ag/Bio Con (agricultural 
biological control), a company that markets the fungus. He is listed as a 
major researcher of the fungus in the UN proposal, and it was he who first 
isolated EN-4 for ARS in Hawaii. Yet now he seems to be more appropriately 
classified as a free-lance businessman, hawking his company's version of a 
fully developed fungus field-ready for "precision delivery from high 
altitude" application by large C-130 cargo planes -- as a picture in his 
literature shows.

Sands has no shortage of influential contacts. Ag/Bio Con has retained a 
prominent DC consulting firm to lobby on bills related to mycoherbicide 
development. The company's officials include a retired Air Force General 
with a background in research; Sands has received a Navy research award and 
has traveled with ranking US government personnel to a similar fungus 
project in Kazakhstan and Russia. Through his Congressional connections, he 
arranged a face-to-face meeting with President Andrés Pastrana in 
Washington last January.

Sands did not return repeated phone calls for comment on this article.

Sands received nationwide attention for Ag/Bio Con in spring and summer of 
last year, when he -- along with Colonel Jim McDonough, a former top aide 
to US drug czar General McCaffrey who had taken a new job as Florida's top 
drug official -- tried a similar sales job to use another strain of 
Fusarium to control Florida's burgeoning marijuana industry. David Struhs, 
the head of Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, reacted with 
a strongly cautionary letter saying: "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. Their 
longevity and enhanced activity under Florida conditions are of concern, as 
this could lead to an increased risk of mutagenicity."

Having been rebuffed by the state of Florida -- failing even to convince 
the state authorities to initiate a simple experiment in a quarantined test 
site -- Sands apparently set his sights on Colombia.

Two scientists who attended Sands' Colombia presentation said he first 
presented himself only as a scientist, not mentioning Ag/Bio Con. When 
asked about aerial application, they said he got flustered seeing they 
already had his sales literature. His goal seemed to be to find four 
hectares anywhere to use for a field trial.

The US Full-Court Press

That goal may be within reach. With the State Department pushing the UN and 
the US Congress threatening fund cutoffs, the pressure is on and the stakes 

Two biologists who made a case on Colombian TV against the UN proposal say 
colleagues have told them to cool the rhetoric. One, who asked that his 
name not be used, says he received telephone threats after his statements 
and is now watching his mouth. "Various times I've answered the phone and 
they've said ... they know where they can find me, where I teach, at what 
times I go out and I think that the country has enough heroes," he told us.

In response to the pressures, the Ministry of Environment has come up with 
a preliminary counterproposal, calling for back-to-basic research on 
"native micro-organisms with biocontrol potential" in the coca zones. The 
proposal does not rule out the unpredictable and dangerous Fusarium, as 
some scientists have demanded. But it does call for a long, meticulous 
study emphasizing safety over the expediency urged by the State Department 
and members of Congress.

After all, why should the people of Colombia expose themselves to a risk 
the people of Florida refused to run? "If we're going to ask, for example, 
the Colombians to do something," said Andy Bernard, spokesman for the 
Florida Office of Drug Control, "we ought to have the guts to do it here as 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake