Human Flower Project
Afghan Poppies: Blight and Blame
A fungal outbreak is expected to kill at least a third of this year’s crop of opium poppies in Afghanistan. Fingers are pointing and prices are on the rise.
A child harvests opium poppies in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan under guard of Marines, April 2010
Photo: Asmaa Waguih for Reuters
News outlets on several continents this week have been reporting a massive blight in Afghanistan’s poppies, the problem so widespread it may kill a third or more of this year’s crop. These Afghan plants are the source for 75% of the world’s heroin—and 95% of the heroin in Europe.
The New York Times reported that the poppy killoff is due to a “mysterious disease”; other sources have confirmed it’s a fungal infection, thus far unspecified.
We’d thought of Papaver somnaferum as an especially hardy plant, but now learn that it’s prone to all kinds of problems: bacterial, viral, nutritional, and seed-borne. This excellent site out of India describes many poppy ailments, two common fungal diseases first: Downy mildew “appears annually on the crop from seedling stage to maturity in opium poppy growing areas of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan,” and Powdery mildew, (Erysiphae Polygon), “caused severe damage to opium crop in Rajasthan in 1972.”
Diseased poppies: experts predict that 1/3 of the Afghan crop has been destroyed by a fungal infection
India, by the way, is the only country that’s authorized by the United Nations “to produce gum opium.” The seed pod, once carefully incised, weeps a white latex that dries and is scraped off – its opium content ultra-high. Eleven other nations (not including Afghanistan) legally produce opium through the less efficient method of processing poppy straw.
The “mysterious” nature of Afghanistan’s poppy blight is not so much biological (surely Afghan botanists have identified the fungus by now) as political and economic. Richard Oppel reports for the NYT that some Afghan farmers are accusing the U.S. and NATO military forces of deliberately infecting their flower fields. According to Oppel, this explanation for the crop failure has been part of “the Taliban public relations strategy”—to turn the Afghan people against the occupying forces.
Col. Wayne Shanks, a Western military spokesman, called placing the blame on NATO or its International Security Assistance Force “absolutely ludicrous.” Shanks told the AP’s Heidi Vogt, “We are not in the eradication business.”
And from what we have read, the U.S. and U.N. have not stringently enforced the ban on poppy growing or even tried to subvert opium production and trade much, at least in recent years. Any gains in “winning the drug war” were losing the Afghani people’s support, and for greater local loyalty, more opium on the streets of London was a small price to pay.
An Afghan army soldier, on patrol with U.S. Marines, prays near a poppy field in Marjah, in Southern Afghanistan
Photo: via Epoch Times
Yet despite what Col. Shanks had to say, the U.S. has certainly been in the “eradication business” before. Remember the use of paraquat on Mexican and Colombia marijuana fields in the late 1970s? More recently, there has been debate over whether the narcotics trade, too, could be disrupted by spreading disease to poppy farms.
As recently as 2006, the U.S. government was considering using the fungus Fusarium oxysporum to destroy cocoa and poppy plants in other countries (and in Florida, too). Some military officials and scientists then cautioned against deploying this fungus in the war on drugs, expressing uncertainty as to its effects on other plant life and potential long term infection of soils. This article reports that U.N. authorities were considering a fungal attack on Asian poppies back in 2000. And here’s a report from 2001 describing the plan to use Fusarium Oxysporum f. sp. Erythroxyli on cannabis and poppy fields.
In other words, there are grounds for suspicion that Western military forces might be to blame for this year’s poppy blight.
The price of opium had been trending down; this year’s crop disease has already sent prices higher.
Graph: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
Yet another theory is that Afghan drug lords themselves spread disease, to raise prices. According to some sources, drug traders have been stockpiling opium to pinch a plentiful global supply. If that’s true, they’re now sitting pretty. Oppel reports, “Reduced production is causing prices for fresh opium to soar as much as 60 percent, after years of declining prices, according to the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa.” With incentives like this, we can expect more farmers to risk growing poppies next season.
Jillian Hagel, the University of Calgary, a member of the research team that discovered the pain-killing genes in opium poppies.
Photo: Ken Bendiktsen, University of Calgary, via Biology Blog
Here’s yet another development, potentially a game-changing feature in the world’s opium wars: “Scientists at the University of Calgary have discovered the unique genes that allow the opium poppy to make codeine and morphine, thus opening doors to alternate methods of producing these effective painkillers either by manufacturing them in a lab or controlling the production of these compounds in the plant.”
This discovery could have all sorts of ramifications: for both more and better synthesized narcotics and more and better poppy heribicides—perhaps morphine-producing pansies, too. Bad news for poppy farmers, any way it goes.