Thursday, September 30, 2010

Viruses Doing Bidding of American Foreign Policy

Following on the heels of a week of Stuxnet news, we have an interesting story coming out of Afghanistan.  Apparently, a blight has halved the productivity of opium poppies in some of the main growing regions. Afghanistan grows roughly 90% of teh world's opium poppies.

Crop eradication has long been a goal of the UN Office of Drug and Crime as well as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, and the U.S. is known to have pursued research of biological agents to kill drug crops in South America and Central Asia.  There is no indication that this virus limiting opium yield from an acreage of poppies was engineered or designed intentionally, but this possibility warrants serious investigation.

The control of the opium trade has long provided a financial support and cause for violence in opium producing regions from Afghanistan to the Golden Triangle.  The Taliban as well as unaffiliated warlords finance their armies by processing the opium and transporting it to Pakistan to be processed into heroin and shipped internationally.  An additional northern route of distribution is expanding, with the initial processing taking place in Afghanistan and passing through central Caucus states and into Russia, a growing market for narcotics.  The US government has an obvious stake in limiting the number of growers and the profitability of growing poppies.

Traditionally, crop-eradication has been a labor-intensive process in which Afghan (or Colobmbian for that matter) troops uproot plants from the fields and burn them.  Fungal bio-warfare has traditionally been designed to kill plants, not limit yields.  Physically destroying a farmer's crop inclines the farmer against trusting the central government and the army, who then attempt to convince the farmer to switch to a staple crop such as wheat.   The current blight certainly seems interesting from the standpoint of drug-eradication, because if weaponized, it would simply frustrate opium farmers invisibly.  The central government could send out agricultural representatives who can furrow their brows and appear sympathetic to the farmer, then assist him with the transition to a crop which isn't blighted.
Such a plan could work, if only the fact that demand for opium and heroin, and therefore poppies grown in Afghanistan, is inelastic.  Farmgate prices have doubled for opium during this blight, leaving the farmers in the same economic position.  Meanwhile, prices for heroin have tripled, meaning larger profits for trafficking organizations.  Farmers who grow poppies are impoverished, and are often forced to grow poppies by local militia who either buy their arms with opium money or simply trade opium for guns in the markets of Karachi.  The price explosion has been a boon to the warlords, and it certainly won't help the farmers.  This is the inherent problem with drug-eradication efforts.  Any success in diminishing supply is counteracted by market forces the next year, often strengthening the hands of people that States and the international community want to weaken.

NB: Three years ago I did a report on poppy cultivation and distribution routes, and remember an interesting question: the estimated amount of poppy cultivation, opium production, and heroin refinement far exceed estimated worldwide demand, leading to a fair amount of price stability.  The source for this information estimated that 1/3 of all cultivated black market opium in a year goes un-used, placing a massive glut on the market.  I don't know much about black markets in the aggregate, but I think this suggests that heroin and opium is widely used as a currency- any takers?

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