Pubdate: Spring 1998
Source: Covert Action Quarterly 
Author: 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

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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Checked-by: Melodi Cornett