War on drugs goes literal: biowarfare on poppies

US and British forces in Afghanistan have been accused of waging biological warfare on poppy fields to stymie opium crop production.

Last week, the UK’s Daily Telegraph reported:

Poppy plants have been suffering from a mysterious disease which leaves them yellow and withered and slashes the yield of opium resin which is sold on and processed into heroin.

According to the Telegraph, yields have dropped by up to 90 per cent in some fields. Some Afghan farmers are blaming British and American soldiers for spraying the crops with the disease. Officials have denied involvement.

Jean-Luc Lemahieu, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan (UNODC), said that plant samples were currently being tested to confirm whether the origins of the disease are natural or human-induced.

Considering that spraying has been forbidden by the president of Afghanistan, “we start with the belief that this is a natural phenomenon,” says Lemanhieu. It could be due to insects such as aphids, or fungi, he says.

The Telegraph reports that the disease was first noticed a month ago and has spread to four provinces across the south, including Helmand – responsible for producing over half of Afghanistan’s opium poppies in 2009.

Antonio Maria Costa of UNODC estimates that in 2008 the opium trade generated between $50 to $70 million for the Taliban, while the most recent Afghanistan Opium Survey estimates that in 2009 Afghan farmers received around $438 million in total for cultivating the drug.

In the past, the US has rejected crop spraying to curb poppy farming in Afghanistan as this would rob farmers of their livelihood and could push them toward the Taliban.

Last year the White House released a statement citing development of agriculture in the region as a “top reconstruction priority”. “This will help sap the insurgency of fighters and of income from poppy cultivation,” said the statement.

According to the Telegraph, an international official in Afghanistan has flatly denied US or British involvement in spreading the disease. He said: “The government of Afghanistan are not using any kind of spraying and there’s nothing else going on either.”

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