US Gov't Plans to Spray Controversial GE Fungus
to Stop Marijuana Cultivation

The New York Times, July 27, 1999

Marijuana-Eating Fungus Seen as
Potent Weapon, but at What Cost?


MIAMI -- For decades, the hard part for drug agents
stalking Florida's marijuana growers was finding their
crop. The growers weave their plants among corn stalks and
even tomato vines to foil aerial searches. In swamps, growers
make berms out of muck and chicken wire and plant their
crop, leaving fat, black water moccasins to stand guard.

Hidden in Florida's lush landscape, the camouflaged marijuana
plants often foiled the small army of officers, helicopters and
drug-sniffing dogs.

Now, the new head of the state's Office of Drug Control hopes
to kill Florida's lucrative marijuana business in the very ground
in which it thrives, by someday dusting suspected areas with a
marijuana-eating, soil-borne fungus, Fusarium oxysporum. It
is a plan that has some politicians and Florida drug
enforcement officials excited, and some environmentalists very

The fungus, a bioherbicide engineered specifically to attack
plants like marijuana, is otherwise harmless, said Ag/Bio Con,
the Montana company that developed it.

"Is it safe, and does it work?" asked Jim McDonough, who
was hired by Gov. Jeb Bush this year to head Florida's Office
of Drug Control.

"I've heard some of the top scientists in the country say, 'Yes.'
" But McDonough, who served as Director of Strategy for
Barry R. McCaffrey, the White House drug czar, said the
fungus would not be used here until it was tested in rigidly
controlled conditions at a Florida site.

"When you deal with science, you deal with the cost of
advancing and what is the cost of not advancing," said
McDonough, who pointed out that 47 percent of the marijuana
seized in the United States is taken here -- and much of it is
home-grown. Most years, drug agents destroy more than
100,000 plants, and one year, 1992, they destroyed more than
240,000 plants.

"With prudence and with care, make your choices," he said.

McDonough said he has not yet presented the plan to Bush.

But in Florida, a state that has seen its environment ravaged by
supposedly harmless plants that thrived so well in a damp, hot
climate that they overwhelmed indigenous plants, some
environmentalists say introducing the fungus is risky, that it
could mutate and cause disease, not only in wild plants but in
crops as well.

"I personally do not like the idea of messing with mother
nature," said Bill Graves, senior biologist at the University of
Florida Research Center in Homestead. "I believe that if this
fungus is unleashed for this kind of problem, it's going to
create its own problems. If it isn't executed effectively, it's
going to target and kill rare and endangered plants."

David Struhs, Secretary of the Florida Department of
Environmental Protection, spelled out the dangers in a letter to
McDonough dated April 6, 1999.

"Fusarium species," he wrote, "are capable of evolving rapidly.
Mutagenicity is by far the most disturbing factor in attempting
to use a Fusarium species as a bioherbicide.

"It is difficult, if not impossible," he wrote, "to control the
spread of Fusarium species."

The mutated fungi can cause disease in a large number of
crops, including tomatoes, peppers, flowers, corn and vines, he
wrote, and are "normally considered a threat to farmers as a
pest, rather than as a pesticide. Fusarium species are more
active in warm soils and can stay resident in the soil for years.
Their longevity and enhanced activity under Florida conditions
are of concern, as this could lead to an increased risk of

What that means, say environmentalists, is that it is hot here
much of the time, and living things behave differently in Florida
than almost anywhere else in this country.

"In principle, I am very supportive of using biological agents
against narcotic plants," said Raghavan Charudattan, professor
of plant pathology and weed science at the University of
Florida. "This needs to be researched well or it could lead to
great danger."

State officials have agreed to quarantine testing of the fungus
-- at a facility outside Gainesville usually used for, among other
things, studying citrus canker, a catastrophic plant disease that
has ruined whole orchards -- and for now any use of the
fungus is probably years away.

But McDonough has some powerful allies, including
Representative Bill McCollum, a Republican from Longwood,
Fla. McDonough is planning to try to obtain part of a
$23-million Congressional allocation for research in eradicating
plants like marijuana, and having an ally like McCollum, as well
as some Republican fund-raisers who back the idea, could be

In Peru, angry farmers have recently accused the United States
of using a soil fungus to destroy coca in the Upper Huallaga
Valley, saying that fungus has spread to banana, yucca,
tangerine and other food crops, according to The Miami

American officials, while acknowledging in June that they had
spent $14 million on research to develop such biological agents
against poppy, coca and marijuana, denied the charges.

In Florida, history has taught scientists to be cautious of
introducing any foreign, living thing into the environment. While
pythons as long as pickup trucks have occasionally been found
under houses in South Florida, most of the problems have been
with vegetable matter.

Kudzu, a Chinese vine that has grown rampant in the South
since its introduction in the 1920's to thwart soil erosion, has
swallowed houses and acres of roadside in Florida, as it grows
a foot a day. Melaleuca trees, planted decades ago to help
drain the Everglades because they suck up so much water,
have infested hundreds of thousands of acres.

Jerry Brooks, assistant director of the state Department of
Environmental Protection's Division of Water Resources, said
the difference between those plants and the fungus is that the
state has learned to be careful.

"Mistakes made in the past," Brooks said, "make sure proper
precautions are being taken."

"They were not tested," he said of the infamous plants.