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Bio-control of Afghan opium crop?

A fungus has infected around half of Afghanistan’s poppy crop, and is threatening to cut the nation’s opium production this year by a quarter, BBC News reports.

Afghanistan produces the lion’s share of the world’s opium. The amount of opium produced by the nation in one hectare (2.47 acres) has almost double to 56kg in the five years to 2009.

Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) told BBC News that the drop in production due to the disease could impact on revenues for insurgent groups such as the Taliban.

The fungus attacks the roots of the plant, climbs up the stem and makes the opium capsule wither away.

The Telegraph reports that some Afghan farmers have accused the United States and Britain of spraying their crops with chemicals. And BBC News says other local farmers believe Nato troops are responsible for the out break.

The (UNODC) says the likely culprit was a natural occurrence of the disease, but that tests by Afghanistan’s interior ministry were inconclusive and more were being carried out.

Jean-Luc Lemahieu, a representative of the UNODC in Kabul, told the Telegraph, that “plagues, pests, blight” had hit Afghanistan’s poppy crop in 2002 and 2006.

“Natural phenomenon cannot be excluded, as happens to wheat, corn, apples. It is part of nature,” Lemahieu said.

An investigation by the BBC’s Panorama programme in 2000 revealed that the United Nations Drugs Control Programme was leading a research project on, Pleospora papaveracea, a pathogenic fungus that kills the opium poppy. The programme was mainly funded by the US with Britain making a US$147,800 (£100,000) contribution.

The Panorama programme says both London and Washington pledged to use the fungus against Afghanistan poppies only with the consent of the Afghan government.


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