- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
Site Served by TheHostPros