Report Calls on the UN Biodiversity Convention to Stop Dangerous US Fungus Experiments

Edward Hammond ehammond at sunshine-project.de
Tue May 2 13:20:06 EST 2000


The Sunshine Project
Press Release
2 May 2000
http://www.sunshine-project.org


    ***   Report Calls on the UN Biodiversity Convention   ***
    ***      to Stop Dangerous US Fungus Experiments       ***


(Hamburg & Seattle, 2 May 00)  In a detailed report released today, the 
Sunshine Project, a new international non-profit dedicated to exposing 
abuses of biotechnology, calls on the upcoming Nairobi meeting of the UN 
Biodiversity Convention to halt the USA¹s dangerous experiments with 
fungi designed to kill narcotic crops. 

TARGETED AT DEVELOPING COUNTRIES OF ASIA AND THE AMERICAS

Intended to kill opium poppy, coca, and cannabis plants, the microbes 
present risks to human health and biodiversity. There is imminent danger 
that a highly infectious fungus will be deliberately released in Andean 
and Amazonian centres of diversity. The US-backed fungi have already 
been used experimentally on opium poppy and cannabis in the US and in 
Central Asia. 

Fungus targets include hundreds of thousands of cultivated hectares in 
narcotic crop-producing countries in South, Southeast, and Central Asia, 
along with Mexico, Central, and South American countries. Thirty years 
after the heavy use of toxic herbicides (Agent Orange) in the Vietnam 
War, the USA is planning the use of a biological agent ("Agent Green") 
in the Drug War. 

ENVIRONMENTALLY UNSOUND  -  THREAT TO ENDANGERED SPECIES

The strains of the fungi Fusarium oxysporum and Pleospora papveracae 
might infect and kill plants other than coca, poppy, and cannabis in 
ecologically sensitive areas of Asia and the Americas.  

US Department of Agriculture researchers have never tested the host 
range of Agent Green on plant species native to target countries, 
including Colombia, which is currently number one on the USA¹s list of 
places to use the fungi. Only a limited range of commercial crops were 
tested, which is little indication of how the fungi will behave in the 
varied and poorly-understood real-world ecologies where they might be 
used. 

"The USA is playing roulette with irreplaceable biological diversity" 
says Susana Pimiento Chamorro, a Colombian lawyer with the Sunshine 
Project. "In Colombia, four close relatives of coca are already listed 
as endangered. Agent Green might be the last step to their extinction." 

It is well known that some strains of F. oxysporum can infect many 
different plants, even distantly related species. To avoid disturbing 
delicate ecosystems in the Amazon, rural Southeast Asia, and the Andes, 
the fungi must not be released.

One of the most highly prized butterflies in the world, the Agrias 
(Agrias sp.) depends on coca¹s wild relatives in Amazonian rainforest.  
Plants in the coca genus are the butterfly¹s host plant, the only place 
where young larvae feed and mature.  A beautiful fast flyer listed as 
endangered in Brazil, one of Agrias¹ centres of speciation is the Upper 
Putumayo River region, precisely where the US intends to apply the 
heaviest doses of the coca-killing fungus.  If the fungus attacks wild 
coca relatives, it will ultimately hurt the Agrias butterfly.

Even more disturbing is the fact that strains of Fusarium oxysporum are 
highly toxic to animals and humans. Birds feeding on plant seeds are 
endangered, and consumption of the coca leaves ­ which is legal in Peru 
and Bolivia ­ might pose a health threat. "Fusaria can produce 
mycotoxins that are deadly enough to be considered weapons of war and 
are listed as biological agents in the draft Protocol to the Biological 
and Toxic Weapons Convention, " says Sunshine Project biologist Dr. Jan 
Van Aken, "US researchers have not tested Agent Green¹s production of 
these deadly mycotoxins."

Once released into the environment, the deadly fungus cannot be 
recalled. Indeed, the coca fungus appears to have escaped scientists¹ 
grasp when it jumped into control plots during field tests in Hawaii. 

REJECTED IN THE USA  Š  BUT PROMOTED ABROAD

The fungus has been clearly rejected in the USA, the world¹s number one 
producer of illicit cannabis. Last year, the Florida Environmental 
Protection Agency emphatically opposed and halted a proposal to use 
Fusaria.  According to the Agency¹s director: "It is difficult, if not 
impossible to control the spread of Fusarium species. The mutated fungi 
can cause disease in large number of cropsŠ Fusarium species are more 
active in warm soils and can stay resident in the soil for years."  

Senior US officials have failed to obtain the financial backing of other 
governments for the plan.  Except for modest support from the UK for the 
poppy killer, no other donor country has financially backed the idea. 
But this has not stopped the USA¹s drug warriors from pressuring Asian 
and South American countries.  Through the offices of the UN Drug 
Control Programme (UNDCP), pressure is being put on Colombia especially, 
which is being asked to sign a field testing contract.  Ironically, it 
was under Colombian leadership that the recent Biosafety Protocol 
negotiations were successfully concluded, and Colombia¹s Environment 
Minister is now President of the high-level UN Commission on Sustainable 
Development.  

FUNGUS MOVEMENT CAN LEAD TO INNOCENT VICTIMS

According to the Sunshine Project¹s Edward Hammond, "An obvious and 
flagrant flaw in the fungal eradication plan is that microbes pay no 
attention to passport and visa requirements.  The fungus can spread 
without regard to political borders, potentially attacking legal crops 
and countries that do not agree to its use." 

There are many potential victims.  Canadian industrial hemp growers have 
expressed concern about US plans.  Fungus applications in coca growing 
areas in southern Colombia, for example, might lead to infections in 
Ecuador, Brazil, or Peru (a legal coca producer).  Use in Central and 
South Asia, for example Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Turkmenistan, could 
lead to losses for bordering India which, under a strict licensing 
system, produces about half the world¹s legal pharmaceutical opiates.  
In Southeast Asia, a variety of disastrous scenarios can be envisioned, 
where opium poppy areas for example in Burma border on Laos, Thailand 
and China, which produces opiates for domestic pharmaceutical use.

If developing country production of legal pharmaceutical opiates is 
damaged by fungus spread, industrialized producers like Australia ­ 
which has already planted  extra-potent genetically engineered opium 
poppy - could increase market share.

THREATENS TRADITIONAL USE

The rights of indigenous people who cultivate the target crops for 
traditional, non-drug uses are also endangered.  In South Asia, poppies 
are used in traditional medicine and plant material is used as fodder.  
Coca has been used for over a millennium in traditional medicine from 
Colombia to Argentina.  Under the Biodiversity Convention indigenous 
peoples are afforded rights to their biodiversity - including medicinal 
plants. Indigenous people who live close to where fungus is applied may 
become innocent Drug War victims. 

GENETIC ENGINEERING POSSIBLE

The United States says that the fungus varieties it wants to use in 
developing countries are not genetically-engineered.  But its has 
created genetically-modified strains in the laboratory. US scientists 
have also cloned virulent genes from related fungi (Fusarium strains 
that attack potatoes) with the possible intent of increasing the kill 
rate of anti-drug fungi through biotechnology.  A consequence of 
permitting testing and use of the current fungi will be future pressure 
for countries to allow "enhanced" Living modified organisms (LMOs) fungi.

ACTION BY THE BIODIVERSITY CONVENTION IS URGENTLY NEEDED

Governments have a legitimate need to control narcotic crops; but doing 
so through the use of "Agent Green" microbes is profoundly misguided and 
sets an alarming precedent.  If governments are idle while microbial 
agents are developed to attack narcotic crops, how will they protect 
biodiversity if microbes are developed to kill other unpopular and 
regulated crops, like tobacco, kava, betel nut palm, peyote, ayahuasca, 
or hops?   
  
The Sunshine Project, which sent its report to 500 government delegates 
from 100 countries, is suggesting several options for government action 
during the May 15-26 Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on 
Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nairobi. Delegates should adopt a 
resolution calling for a halt of the US program and condemning the of 
use of any microbe for the purpose of eradicating cultivated crops.  
Such a resolution is not a statement on drug policy; but instead a 
reiteration of fundamental objectives of the Convention.  The CBD cannot 
remain quiet while agents are developed by a non-party to deliberately 
obliterate biodiversity, especially plants with legitimate medicinal and 
traditional uses. 

The CBD may also consider studying the fungus under its Agriculture 
Program, because of the fungi¹s impacts on pollinators and soil 
diversity ­ both specific responsibilities of the Convention. 
Governments may also request the CBD Executive Secretary to urgently 
convey the CBD¹s views to the United National Drug Control Programme 
(UNDCP), which has been ­ sometimes reluctantly ­ helping implementation 
of the US program. 

About the Sunshine Project

The Sunshine Project is an international non-profit organization 
dedicated to bringing information to light on harmful abuses of 
biotechnology.  The Project has expert staff with training in law, 
policy, and biology with lengthy experience on policy issues.  The 
Project has offices in Hamburg, Germany and Seattle, USA.  For more 
information, visit our website (http://www.sunshine-project.org) or 
contact us by telephone or e-mail.

A copy of the Sunshine Project¹s report on Agent Green is available at 
our website or on request (tsp at sunshine-project.de).

European and Science Media
Dr. Jan Van Aken
Hamburg, Germany 
van.aken at sunshine-project.org
Tel: +49 40 431 88-001

The Americas and Asia, Political Media
Susana Pimiento or Edward Hammond
Seattle, USA
ehammond at sunshine-project.org
spimiento at sunshine-project.org
Tel: +1 206 633 3718






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