Published on Sunday, July 2, 2000 in the London Observer
US Prepares To Spray Genetically-Modified Herbicides On Colombians
by Ed Vulliamy in New York
A torrent of potentially lethal herbicide is set to be unleashed across great swaths of Colombia as part of a new US aid package which was finally approved by Congress last week.
A hidden and undebated condition of the $1.6 billion package - meant to finance the Colombian government's fight against the now overlapping forces of guerrilla rebels and narco-cartels - is a plan for military aircraft to spray the country's coca-growing areas.
The scheme echoes the infamous defoliation of Vietnam because the plan involves a mycoherbicide called Fusarium EN-4. The Fusarium fungus is the root for many of the chemical weapons developed by the US, the Soviet Union, Britain, Israel, France and Iraq.
Mycotoxicologist Jeremy Bigwood - working with a fellowship grant to carry out research into Fusarium derivatives used in biological warfare - told The Observer that the use of the fungus in Colombia would damage crops other than cocaine, and develop mutations that could lethally affect humans with immune deficiencies.
Fusarium works by infecting crops with a soil-borne mould which secretes toxins into their roots, which then putrefy and dissolve the plants' cells, killing them or - worse still - affecting the animals or humans who feed off them. During the late 1980s, a mystery epidemic of Fusarium suddenly attacked a coca-growing area of Peru. Bigwood was working as a photo-journalist and teamed up with a Latin American expert, Sharon Stevenson, to publish an article in the Miami Herald detailing extensive damage to other crops than coca in the Peruvian valley.
Ruined peasants said they had seen helicopters spraying a brownish smoke across the fields, but it remains a mystery whether the Fusarium epidemic was an experiment by the US and Peruvian authorities, as Bigwood and Stevenson suspected.
Fusarium next emerged in 1999 when Colonel Jim McDonough - a former colleague of White House drug czar General Barry McCaffrey, now in charge of the present Colombian operation - was hired by Governor Jeb Bush to run the Florida anti-drug office. He proposed to spray the fungus's EN-4 strain on the state's copious marijuana crops. His adviser in the scheme was Dr David Sands, now a professor at the University of Montana in Bozeman, who had extracted the strain for the US Department of Agriculture.
The plan was scotched when the head of Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, Dr David Struhs, wrote a letter to the colonel dated 6 April 1999, saying that the 'mutagenicity' of the fungus 'was by far the most disturbing factor in attempting to use a Fusarium species as a herbicide. It is difficult if not impossible to control the spread of the Fusarium species,' he wrote. 'The mutated fungi can cause disease in a large number of crops including tomatoes, peppers, flowers, corn and vines'. He added that the mutated genus could stay in the ground for 40 years.
During research for his lecture, Bigwood traced Sands to Colombia where he was an executive with Agricultural and Biological Control, a company which markets the fungus. He visited scientists to tell them about EN-4, and - according to the same scientists' accounts to Bigwood - instructed them not to talk to the press.
The government's 'fumigation' of coca-growing areas of Colombia had been continuing for some time on a small scale, with Indians in the high Andean villages complaining of nausea, rashes and stomach problems after the spray-planes had swooped over. They have also damaged legitimate crops, thereby undermining government efforts to support farmers who have renounced poppy and coca growing.
The agent used in these cases was Glyphosate, marketed by the Monsanto company (famous for GM foods) as 'Roundup'. Monsanto had been forced by a court case in New York to withdraw claims that the product was 'safe, non-toxic and harmless'.
The limited spraying programme did nothing to curb the mass production of either cocaine or heroin. Official sources fear even if the forthcoming programme were to wipe out a third of the drug, that would send the price of the remaining two-thirds 'through the ceiling'.
US government researchers, says Bigwood, initially insisted that the EN-4 strain was 'species specific', designed to attack only the Erythroxylum genus in a coca plant. But, he says, there are 200 other plant species within that genus which do not contain coca and could therefore be affected and destroyed. Even this does not fully define the threat to other crops because, says Bigwood, 'it mutates into another organism, capable of attacking another plant. The protagonists of Fusarium can then hide behind the fact that when it attacks something else, it has become something else.'
Bigwood's greatest concern is with the potential effect not on other crops than coca, but on humans. Among the Colombian scientists who met with Sands was Eduardo Posada, president of the Colombian Centre for International Physics, who found Fusarium to be 'highly toxic'. His data found that that the mortality rate among hospital patients who were immune-deficient and in-fected by the fungus was 76 per cent.
'To apply a mycoherbicide from the air that has been associated with a 76 per cent kill rate of hospitalised human patients would be tantamount to biological warfare', he said.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000