"US Defies Kabul on Destroying Opium Crop"

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This was the headline of the lead story in the weekend edition of the Financial Times, and oddly, it appears to have been picked up in no other news organ tracked by Google News.

Now even though other advanced countries have drug problems too, the US is the only one that thinks it can fly planes over other countries and dust offensive crops with herbicides.

This is a bad idea on so many levels that it is hard to know where to begin. Yes, we will concede that getting Afghanistan to grow fewer poppies would be a good thing. Afghanistan produces roughly 92% of the world’s opium. Anything that reduces supply will increase prices, and that will lower consumption. More important, opium revenues are believed to help fund terrorists, so making those operations less profitable helps US security.

Note that Afghanistan’s large role in poppy cultivation could have been prevented. The Taliban banned poppy cultivation in 200-2001 and reduced production by 94%. This year’s crop is expected to be 33 times as large as the 2001 harvest. Ironically, the revived drug trade is funding the Taliban.

How did things get into this state? A May 2007 New York Times article explains:

But plans to clear poppy fields and pursue major drug figures have been frustrated by corruption in the Afghan government, and derided by critics as belated half-measures or missteps not likely to have much impact.

”There may have been things one could have done earlier on, but at this stage, I think there are relatively limited good options,” said James F. Dobbins, a former State Department official who served as the administration’s special representative on Afghanistan….

But until recently, American officials acknowledge, fighting drugs was considered a distraction from fighting terrorists.

The State Department and Pentagon repeatedly clashed over drug policy, according to current and former officials who were interviewed. Pentagon leaders refused to bomb drug laboratories and often balked at helping other agencies and the Afghan government destroy poppy fields, disrupt opium shipments or capture major traffickers, the officials say.

The Financial Times describes the new plan:

The US is proceeding with plans for a big crop-spraying programme to destroy opium poppies in Afghanistan, in spite of resistance from the government of President Hamid Karzai and objections from some senior US military officers who fear it will fuel the Taliban insurgency.

A US delegation will soon leave for Kabul to persuade Mr Karzai that glycophate, a herbicide that is widely applied by US farmers, is safe to use and that trial ground-spraying should begin for the first time since the US ousted the Taliban regime in 2001.

But controversy over the proposed spraying is causing rifts within the Nato alliance. Some governments, including Germany, want nothing to do with the eradication programme and are threatening to reconsider their posture in Afghanistan, diplomats say. Afghan security forces trained by Dyncorp, a private US defence contractor, are to carry out the spraying.

“There has to be a stick that goes with the carrot,” said Ambassador Thomas Schweich, US co-ordinator for counter-narcotics in Afghanistan. Eradication had to be a component of US policy, he said.

Mr Schweich said no decision had been reached on aerial spraying and this would rest on agreement with the Afghan government. But he made it clear that crop spraying was the preferred US approach, combined with economic development and information programmes as well as robust efforts to interdict drug traffickers.

Pointing to a map of Afghanistan, he described a broad north-south divide. Poppy cultivation had either fallen sharply or stabilised in the north-central provinces that were more secure, but risen in the west, south and east, where the Taliban insurgency was gaining strength.

Eradication would target wealthier farmers who had spurned other development options, he said. “We are not targeting poor farmers. This is fiction,” he said.

Afghanistan supplies over 90 per cent of the world’s opium, but the crop also accounts for about a third of the country’s entire economic output.

“The US is hell-bent on eradication,” said Robert Rotberg, Harvard University professor. “They claim it worked in Colombia and so will work in Afghanistan. It is not clear to anyone it worked in Colombia,” he added.

The arrogance of this move is breathtaking. Afghanistan has supposedly been a democracy since it had elections in 2004, but if they don’t play ball, we’ll treat them as if they were a 51st state. And , par for the course, the Bushies don’t care that our NATO allies are appalled.

And if this hare-brained plan moves forward, it is likely to do far more harm than good. According to the UN, over 2 milion people work in the poppy fields, out of a total citizenry of about 10 million. Since that includes woman, you probably have only 5 million wage earners at best. So the US is prepared to wipe out 1/3 of the GDP and eliminate work for as many as 40% of the adult male population. That is a prescription for devastation, social breakdown, and chaos.

And any large-scale spraying program is almost certain to create collateral damage. The herbicide glyphosate (once Monsanto’s Roundup; the FT misspelled its name) is pretty safe if used correctly (eye irritation is the biggest risk). However, in spraying coca, glyphosate was used in combination with surfactants that are more toxic.

The spraying program in Columbia was controversial because it killed crops beyond the targeted coca. The EPA has conceded that spray drift in Columbia could destroy up to 50% of young plants up to 600 feet downwind of the target area.

Corn and banana fields were also wiped out. There was also considerable opposition from environmental groups, since the coca farmers would simply move their fields to a new area, leading to deforestation and jeopardizing endangered species.

Now I am not an agricultural expert, but every image I have ever seen of that country is full of dust and looks bone dry. I would therefore assume that the problem for the farmers is the reverse of that in Columbia. There, with considerable disruption, they can find new land to farm. In Afghanistan, I doubt if they have that option. If their fields are sprayed, intentionally or accidentally, they probably lose a year’s income.

Finally, Roundup-resistant coca is being grown in Columbia. A Wired Magazine story in 2004 reported that tests had found it was the result of selective breeding, but observed that it would be trivial to create a genetically engineered Roundup resistant variant. So how long could this Afghan effort based on brute force spraying succeed?

So the US proposed to violate national sovereignty (do you think Karzai can say no?) and create considerable economic hardship in an almost-certain-to-backfire effort to undermine the Taliban. Another negative advertisement for democracy American style.

Update: In a curious bit of synchronicity, just after we posted this piece, we came across Project Censored’s Top 25 Censored Stories. #13 is “New Evidence Establishes Dangers of Roundup.” Among other things, if you wonder why frogs are exhibiting deformities and dying, Roundup appears to be a, if not the, culprit. And its impact on humans is greater than believed earlier:

New studies from both sides of the Atlantic reveal that Roundup, the most widely used weedkiller in the world, poses serious human health threats. More than 75 percent of genetically modified (GM) crops are engineered to tolerate the absorption of Roundup—it eliminates all plants that are not GM. Monsanto Inc., the major engineer of GM crops, is also the producer of Roundup. Thus, while Roundup was formulated as a weapon against weeds, it has become a prevalent ingredient in most of our food crops.

Three recent studies show that Roundup, which is used by farmers and home gardeners, is not the safe product we have been led to trust.

A group of scientists led by biochemist Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini from the University of Caen in France found that human placental cells are very sensitive to Roundup at concentrations lower than those currently used in agricultural application.

An epidemiological study of Ontario farming populations showed that exposure to glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, nearly doubled the risk of late miscarriages. Seralini and his team decided to research the effects of the herbicide on human placenta cells. Their study confirmed the toxicity of glyphosate, as after eighteen hours of exposure at low concentrations, large proportions of human placenta began to die. Seralini suggests that this may explain the high levels of premature births and miscarriages observed among female farmers using glyphosate.

Seralini’s team further compared the toxic effects of the Roundup formula (the most common commercial formulation of glyphosate and chemical additives) to the isolated active ingredient, glyphosate. They found that the toxic effect increases in the presence of Roundup ‘adjuvants’ or additives. These additives thus have a facilitating role, rendering Roundup twice as toxic as its isolated active ingredient, glyphosate.

Another study, released in April 2005 by the University of Pittsburgh, suggests that Roundup is a danger to other life-forms and non-target organisms. Biologist Rick Relyea found that Roundup is extremely lethal to amphibians. In what is considered one of the most extensive studies on the effects of pesticides on nontarget organisms in a natural setting, Relyea found that Roundup caused a 70 percent decline in amphibian biodiversity and an 86 percent decline in the total mass of tadpoles. Leopard frog tadpoles and gray tree frog tadpoles were nearly eliminated.

In 2002, a scientific team led by Robert Belle of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) biological station in Roscoff, France showed that Roundup activates one of the key stages of cellular division that can potentially lead to cancer. Belle and his team have been studying the impact of glyphosate formulations on sea urchin cells for several years. The team has recently demonstrated in Toxicological Science (December 2004) that a “control point” for DNA damage was affected by Roundup, while glyphosate alone had no effect. “We have shown that it’s a definite risk factor, but we have not evaluated the number of cancers potentially induced, nor the time frame within which they would declare themselves,” Belle acknowledges.

There is, indeed, direct evidence that glyphosate inhibits an important process called RNA transcription in animals, at a concentration well below the level that is recommended for commercial spray application.

There is also new research that shows that brief exposure to commercial glyphosate causes liver damage in rats, as indicated by the leakage of intracellular liver enzymes. The research indicates that glyphosate and its surfactant in Roundup were found to act in synergy to increase damage to the liver.

Roundup Ready weedkiller is one of the most widely used weedkillers in the world for crops and backyard gardens. Roundup, with its active ingredient glyphosate, has long been promoted as safe for humans and the environment while effective in killing weeds. It is therefore significant when recent studies show that Roundup is not as safe as its promoters claim.

This has major consequences as the bulk of commercially planted genetically modified crops are designed to tolerate glyphosate (and especially Roundup), and independent field data already shows a trend of increasing use of the herbicide. This goes against industry claims that herbicide use will drop and that these plants will thus be more “environment-friendly.” Now it has been found that there are serious health effects, too. My story therefore aimed to highlight these new findings and their implications to health and the environment.

Not surprisingly, Monsanto came out refuting some of the findings of the studies mentioned in the article. What ensued was an open exchange between Dr. Rick Relyea and Monsanto, whereby the former stood his grounds. Otherwise, to my knowledge, no studies have since emerged on Roundup.

For more information look to the following sources:
Professor Gilles-Eric, criigen@ibfa.unicaen.fr
Biosafety Information Center, http://www.biosafety-info.net
Institute of Science in Society, http://www.i-sis.org.uk

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