Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
U.S. legislators are making new threats to use biological weapons in Colombia's civil war. In December 2002 a plan resurfaced in the U.S. House of Representatives to employ an untested pathogenic fungus, Fusarium oxysporum in Colombia's U.S.-funded "War on Drugs." Critics say the plan proposes illegal acts of biological warfare, poses major ecological risks to one of the world's most bio-diverse countries, and will increase the human damage of a failed eradication policy. The new fungal agents were dubbed Agent Green by the Sunshine Project, a non-governmental organization opposed to the use of biological weapons, and were developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and by two other facilities using U.S. government funding--a private company in Montana, and a former Soviet biological weapons facility in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The lead agents are types of Fusarium oxysporum (to kill coca and cannabis) and Pleospora papaveracea (to kill opium poppy). Their ecological and human health safety is very poorly tested, and they are known to impact non-target species.
In June 1999, the U.S. Senate approved a US$1.3 billion aid package in support of Colombia's "War on Drugs," that required testing of the fungal pathogen as another weapon to be employed against illicit drugs, along with conventional pesticides. The plan was opposed by civil society worldwide, and President Clinton eventually waived this requirement, citing concerns for the proliferation of biological weapons. Colombia also rejected proposals to test this pathogen due to environmental risks.
The coca-killing strain of Fusarium oxysporum is naturally abundant in temperate and tropical zones, killing plants by releasing fungal toxins (mycotoxins) into plant roots. A generalist fungal pathogen, the toxin attacks a variety of plants. Because it persists in soil, Fusarium oxysporum would make the soil sprayed in Colombia unfit for coca-cultivation for up to 40 years.
Pesticide Action Network scientist Margaret Reeves states "Fusarium oxysporum is a huge threat, with potentially enormous negative consequences for a variety of plant species. Little is known about possible dangers of a massive introduction of these fungi into the environment, their potential to attack other plant species or the health risks caused by the toxins they produce." The Sunshine Project considers Agent Green an indiscriminate killer, that poses threats to human health and to non-targeted species. Some Fusarium species are also known to cause human disease, especially in individuals with compromised immune systems due to cancer, AIDS or even asthma.
Clearly, the large-scale introduction of a persistent and generalist toxin, is extremely risky for Colombia. However, Colombia is at a disadvantage because it depends heavily upon U.S. aid.
The U.S. plan to spray Fusarium oxysporum would violate the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which prohibits international transfers of bioweapons and equipment. Some of Colombia's neighbors, including Ecuador and Peru, have passed national regulations to try to preempt U.S. bioweapons pressure like that exerted on Colombia.
If biological warfare in the form of Agent Green is used in Colombia, it may legitimize global biological warfare on a larger scale. The Sunshine project explains that Afghanistan is also on the U.S. target list, as are other countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia and Latin America.
Attempts to use Agent Green on illicit cannabis crops within the U.S. were quashed by environmental regulators in Florida. The Sunshine Project terms the use of this fungal pathogen in Colombia not only hypocritical but also colonialist. The use of this generalist and highly persistent fungal pathogen would legitimize biological warfare, and provide a major threat to the health and environment within Colombia.
Sources: The Temptation of Dr. Weed, Missoula Independent, January 16, 2003; Press Release, New US Bioweapons Threat on Colombia, The Sunshine Project, 17 December 17, 2002, http://www.sunshine-project.org/; Biological Weapons Join Pesticides in Misguided "War on Drugs," PANUPS, Aug 1, 2000, http://www.panna.org/resources/panups/panup_20000801.dv.html.