A mysterious disease is blighting Afghan opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) destroying up to a third of the opium harvest this spring, according to estimates revealed on Wednesday by United Nations officials. Reduced harvests could boost profits for insurgent groups such as the Taliban and fuel their propaganda war against US troops, but it may also provide an opportunity to persuade Afghan farmers to focus on growing alternative crops.

The disease is likely to have been spread by an aphid, but it could be the result of a fungus or virus, according to the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa. Tests are underway to identify the pathogen causing poppy blight in Afghanistan. A search of CAB Abstracts for “(poppy or Papaver) and blight” yielded 74 results, most of which report the fungus Pleospora papaveracea as the agent of blight in opium poppies. However, these previous reports have been for leaf blight whereas in the recent outbreak in Afghanistan a fungus attacks the root of the plant, climbs up the stem and withers the opium capsule used to produce the narcotic.

Farmer Haji Mohammad in Nawzad told the BBC that he had seen a dramatic reduction in the amount of opium he was able to harvest. He described the fungus as an "aerial spray". "[It]… has affected my wheat cultivation and my chickens and other animals as well… The powder sprayed has a white colour and I think it is chemical and if you squeeze it in your hand, water comes out of it," he said.

Reduced harvests have resulted in opium prices rocketing by up to 50% in the region, with a huge increase in the street price of heroin expected in the West. Drug traffickers and insurgent groups such as the Taliban, who have built up large stockpiles of poppies, stand to cash in whilst thousands of poor farmers lose out from reduced harvests.

Some Afghan poppy farmers have blamed Western forces for introducing the disease as a method of eradicating the poppy crop, a feeling largely encouraged by the Taliban’s public relations strategy against the offensives. The charge is denied by NATO's International Security and Assistance force in Afghanistan, who recently abandoned tough measures like widespread eradication deciding they would be counterproductive to winning over Afghans.

However, the repercussions are not entirely negative. Mr Costa said this was an opportunity for the international community to try to persuade farmers to turn away from planting opium. "Nature really played in favour of the opium economy; this year, we see the opposite situation," he said. Troops are trying to encourage poppy farmers to switch to other crops by using financial incentives.

But another UNODC official, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, warned: "We need to be cautious not to shout victory… It might not just affect opium fields but the alternative crops which we promote such as apricots, apples and pomegranates."

The disease has so far been reported in Helmand, Kandahar and Oruzgan provinces, where more than 90% of the opium crop is harvested and also where thousands of US troops are fighting an insurgency partly funded by the trade.

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  1. Jo on 20th May 2010 at 3:47 pm

    A farmer says it is also hitting other crops like wheat, –NPR was on it this morning too –this farmer says it comes from the sky as a kind of dust–hmmmmmmm……….
    I wonder–it could be a result of weather changes (like our cool/cold & rainy springs 2 years in a row–US NW area) plus intensive cultivation on the same ground with NO rotation, providing conditions for a latent soil-residing fungus to go ape.

  2. Katherine Cameron on 24th November 2010 at 4:45 pm

    An update on the situation:
    Opium production in Afghanistan has almost halved in the past year – the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2010 Afghan Opium Survey (published September 2010) showed production in 2010 was at its lowest level since 2003, estimated at 3,600 tonnes – a 48% decrease from 6,900 tonnes in 2009. The sharp drop is largely due to blight.
    However, the UNODC warns that production is unlikely to stay low, with rising prices tempting farmers to cultivate more opium poppies.
    “This is good news but there is no room for false optimism; the market may again become lucrative for poppy-crop growers so we have to monitor the situation closely,” said Yury Fedotov, executive director of UNODC.

  3. daniel greenslade on 25th November 2010 at 5:05 pm

    although this blight is a god send to the millions of families who watch with such sadness at their children being ravaged by heroin my self being hooked after 15yrs clean,but when the world is struck with such shortages those evil dealers who supply our fates start mixing dangerous things into it so that when they pay more to supply the streets they make it back by mixing,the insanity of drugs means we will keep taking this drug even though at the moment it has no opiates in it at all,im afraid this is where so many families lose even more sons and daughters,i feel that when something like this happens maybe the government can find a solution.

  4. DNA News on 5th February 2011 at 3:50 am

    Wow I wonder if any oarticular government agency might have had something to do with this? We are always interested in the latest DNA news.

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