As part of the $2.7 billion "Western Hemisphere Drug Elimination Act" signed into law last fall, researchers at the USDA's Agricultural Research Services (ARS) will receive $10 million to develop strains of mycoherbicides, or soil-borne fungi, that can be used to eradicate opium poppies, coca, and marijuana in the U.S. and internationally. The project, part of a $23 million package to enhance eradication strategies, was sponsored by Mike DeWine (R-OH) in the Senate and hailed by Rep. Bill McCollum (R-FL) as a potential "silver bullet in the war on drugs."
Mycoherbicides have been used successfully in eliminating noxious weeds, and environmental groups have encouraged their development and use as alternatives to chemical herbicides. But experts warn of the risk of unintended consequences in unleashing genetically programmed fungi on the environment.
DRCNet spoke with George Wooten, a chemical ecologist with the Pacific Biodiversity Institute. "There is no silver bullet," he said. "Suppose this plan were not successful enough; we would have spent a lot of money with no results. But if it were too successful, we could end up with a situation where it killed the entire gene from the earth. And then we would no longer have a source of very valuable narcotics which are used to cure people. The risks are very high." Crucial pain relievers and anesthetics such as morphine are derived from the opium plant. Cocaine also plays an important, though more limited role in anesthesia.
Indeed, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the potential risks of enlisting mycoherbicides in the drug war. For instance, a fungus designed to eliminate only the target plant may work perfectly well in controlled experiments, but there seems to be no way to guarantee how it will behave in nature over time. One fungus deemed particularly promising in ARS reports is a strain of fusarium oxysporum, a naturally occurring outbreak of which has destroyed vast tracts of coca in Peru over the past few years. But other strains of fusarium are devastating to dozens of other crops, causing wilt disease in everything from melons to string beans.
Another concern is just how species-specific these mycoherbicides will be. Will a fungus have better luck distinguishing hemp from marijuana than the DEA?
"Because these narcotics plants are defined based on legal definitions, not biological ones," Wooten noted, "any nation who has a different concept of what should or shouldn't be a narcotic drug would be justified in developing such tools to fight their own particular noxious plants. This might include coffee, tobacco, or other plants that have a use in one country but are considered unacceptable in another. That's the scenario before us, and I don't think we can necessarily stop it. But for the government to fund it -- it seems to be a money thing. There's probably a USDA branch that's in dire need of funds, and this was seen as a positive way to go about solving problems they've recently had in licensing similar patents to confer herbicide resistance on plants. This is a way for the government to fund it, so that companies aren't incurring the financial risk."
A spokeswoman for ARS did not return calls requesting information on the status of the project.
DRCNet will continue to pursue this story. Meanwhile, read Jim Hogshire's "Biological Roulette: The Drug War's Fungal Solution?" appearing in the Spring, 1998 issue of Covert Action Quarterly. The Media Awareness Project has the full text at http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v98/n495/a03.html. ARS publishes research notes on its web site at http://www.ars.usda.gov/.