Afghanistan’s Poppy Blight Could Mean Trouble for War Effort

Afghanistan’s Poppy Blight Could Mean Trouble for War Effort

A mysterious crop disease has torn through the poppy fields of southern Afghanistan, leading Antonia Maria Costa, head of the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime, to decrease the projection for the 2010 opium harvest by an astonishing 2,600 metric tons, or one-third of the national output. Scores of Afghan farmers have supported Costa's claim, indicating that the opium harvest currently taking place in Afghanistan's five main opium producing provinces will result in meager yields. The socioeconomic impact of the failed harvest comes at a precarious time, as thousands of international and Afghan troops are preparing to pacify the restless and unstable southern provinces in a massive military operation this summer.

Taliban insurgents have already issued statements to the local population blaming international forces for spraying unknown chemicals over southern Afghanistan, damaging crops and sickening livestock. Some Afghan farmers are claiming their legal food crops, like apricot trees and wheat, have also suffered. Even livestock such as cows and goats are rumored to be sick. Although the UNODC is currently testing samples from the badly damaged opium crop, anecdotal evidence points to fungi -- possibly macrosporium papaverus, which causes root and capsule rot, resulting in little-to-no extractable opium latex being available to farmers. Aphids, small plant-eating insects, are often infected by bacteria, viruses and fungi, and could also bear responsibility for the wide destruction of poppy crops. But with Taliban propaganda mechanisms working at full capacity, the rumor mill is in full swing. Conspiracy-minded communities of southern Afghanistan are increasingly convinced that international forces are responsible for the "mysterious" destruction of their poppy crops. For their part, NATO and U.S. officials have vehemently denied any participation in a chemical or bio-agent dispersal operation against Afghan poppies.

Despite the denials, there is plenty of history to feed the Taliban's accusations and the beleaguered Afghan farmers' suspicions. Beginning in 1997, the United States funded a UNDCP project that sought to test a bio-engineered fungus, fusarium oxysporum, capable of destroying Central Asia's opium crops. A similar project to engineer fusarium for use against illicit marijuana farms in the state of Florida and against the coca fields of Colombia was also pursued by the U.S. government in the late-1990s. The government terminated the program after scientists raised concerns over the fungus strain's ability to mutate into a variety capable of attacking and destroying non-targeted crops and wildlife. Research and development for the Central Asia poppy project concluded in 2002, although the bio-agent was never overtly deployed against the Central Asian poppy fields.

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