Yikes! Attack of the Killer Fungus Is a Moldy Plan

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The war on drugs in Colombia is starting to look more and more like Vietnam every day, and not only because the U.S. is now advocating defoliation. The New York Times reported Thursday that Washington has leaned on Colombia to begin field-testing the fungus Fusarium oxysporum for use in eliminating coca crops, as the price for the billion-dollar aid package Washington is sending to that nation's military. Human rights organizations had questioned the wisdom of seeking to combat drug cultivation by beefing up an army with a deplorable human rights record in a decades-old civil war, but it's environmentalists who're up in arms over the Fusarium proposal. The U.S. is proposing blanketing much of Colombia with a fungus whose planned use against marijuana fields in Florida was stopped out of environmental concerns, and the Colombian authorities have reportedly been similarly reluctant to apply a solution whose wider impact remains unknown.

More important, though, Fusarium is unlikely to stop the flow of drugs into the U.S. First, biologists point out, even if the fungus proved effective against coca plants in Colombia, it would be a relatively simple matter for that country's narco-traffickers to genetically alter their plants to make them resistant to the herbicide. But even if the fungus managed to munch its way through the entire Colombian coca crop, the economics of the drug trade dictate that the traffickers would simply set up shop elsewhere, leaving Colombia to deal with any ecological consequences. After all, as long as there's a demand for cocaine on the streets and in the boardrooms of the United States, it's going to be worth somebody's while to produce it. Like Vietnam, then, a war on drugs that doesn't address the root cause of the problem — that Americans are prepared to spend billions of dollars every year on illegal substances — may be unwinnable. A number of congressmen tried to make the same point when the Colombia aid package was voted upon, urging that some of the money be reallocated for drug-treatment programs in the U.S. But that sounds a little wussy-ish compared with the martial tones of a "War on Drugs" — even an unwinnable one.