Mad Science: House Committee Approves Mycoherbicide Testing in Bid to Wipe Out Drug Crops 7/15/05

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The State Department doesn't want to touch it. The CIA backs away from it. The DEA has washed its hand of it. The drug czar scoffs at it. Nobody in the federal government wants to get involved with mycoherbicides, the pathogenic fungi that could theoretically be applied to coca crops in the Andes, opium crops in Afghanistan, or any other crop, for that matter. But ardent drug warriors in the House of Representatives have forced a provision mandating renewed research into the use of mycoherbicides into the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) appropriations bill, and they have won their first battle with the bill passing out of the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere on June 16.

An earlier round of drug warrior enthusiasm for victory through biological warfare came crashing to the ground as the potential costs of relying on mycoherbicides, such as fusarium, became known. President Clinton abandoned the idea of using it against Colombian coca because of the possible public relations disaster mycoherbicides represent.

In response to a proposal by anti-drug officials in Florida to use mycoherbicides there, the head of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, David Struhs, addressed the dangers of mycoherbicides like fusarium in a letter to then state drug czar Jim McDonough: "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 large numbers 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."

None of that concerned committee head Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN), who authored the mycoherbicide amendment to the appropriations bill, or his drug war henchman, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), who championed the move. "We spend millions of dollars every year on counter-narcotic efforts, including drug crop eradication and interdiction, especially in our joint efforts in Colombia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, yet the flow of illegal and lethal narcotics continues to be a major problem in our country," said Burton in a news release crowing about the measure. "The advent of mycoherbicides and other counter-narcotic alternatives offers us the possibility to cut off the source of these drugs literally at their roots."

"If proven to be successful, mycoherbicide could revolutionize our drug eradication efforts," said Souder. "Mycoherbicide research needs to be investigated, and we need to begin testing it in the field. The potential benefit of these fungi is tremendous. My Hoosier colleague should be commended for advancing this initiative, and I'm pleased that his amendment was adopted into the bill."

If the amendment remains intact during the rest of the appropriations process, the Burton provision would require the drug czar to present to Congress within 90 days a plan of action for a review of the science of mycoherbicides as a means of destroying drug crops. It also calls for controlled scientific testing of mycoherbicides in a major drug producing nation.

"I am very hopeful that with the proper scientific research and testing, mycoherbicides can be utilized as an effective tool to help eradicate poppy and coca fields around the world and ultimately reduce the flow of drugs coming into our country," concluded Chairman Burton.

"Essentially the entire US government has closed ranks against using mycoherbicides," said Jeremy Bigwood, a mycoherbicides researcher and co-author of the MacArthur Foundation-funded study "Mycoherbicides: Biocontrol or Biowarfare?" "All of the research suggests it would be extremely dangerous to use them. They are toxic, and they are non-specific, and they mutate. They are little chemical factories that produce toxic chemicals, and they can attack humans."

The politicians involved in pushing for the use of such substances are "the mycoherbicide cheering section" and are blind to the dangers -- both scientific and political -- of resorting to them," said Bigwood. "This is essentially biowarfare, and Burton and his friends are trying to force the executive branch to do this against its will. The US government doesn't want to go with this. Just think about how the FARC in Colombia could use this as a propaganda coup; the blowback would be instant and dramatic. Likewise, if they threaten to use this in Afghanistan, that would be really bad news. The Taliban doesn't have much sympathy in the Western world, but start spraying with that stuff and that will quickly change."

Meanwhile, the drug czar appropriations bill moves forward. Calling Rep. Strangelove, calling Rep. Frankenstein...

-- END --
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Issue #395 -- 7/15/05

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