The strain will allow the plants to develop but will decimate the quantity of opium they can produce, thereby ensuring that growers spend time and money guarding a useless crop.
A virulent strain of Pleospora papaveracea, a fungus which looks much like the black fuzzy powder that grows on stale bread, was isolated by scientists at the Institute of Genetics in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The centre is on the rim of the "golden crescent" area of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan where much of the world's heroin is grown. Plans are being drawn up to produce large quantities of the fungus in industrial fermenters so that it can be sprayed over or released near the opium fields.
British experts were reported this weekend to be advising Uzbekistan on how to culture the fungus, but a spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) could not confirm that the Government was funding part of the cost, estimated to be pounds 300,000.
The United States government is also said to be involved in the project, a revelation that might be used as propaganda by Islamic fundamentalists who could legitimately claim that the West was involved in attempts to wage biological warfare on poor farmers in the region.
Dr Jeff Waage, director of the International Institute of Biological Control at Ascot in Berkshire, said that the United Nations had been investigating a range of fungi that could be used against opium poppies and other illicit drug crops. "In principle, you could produce the naturally occurring diseases of poppies artificially and I understand this is what they are doing. There are about four or five commercially available fungal herbicides which do much the same job on weeds," he said.
Although the institute has worked with the UN's anti-drug programme, Dr Waage denied that it had "vetted" the research. He said the institute did not get involved in specific projects because of the fears that this may jeopardise the safety of its researchers who work in countries with organised drug gangs.
"We don't know anything of the Tashkent people and I don't understand the reported link with Britain. We've never heard of Maff funding any of this work. I'm quite concerned that there are suggestions that we are implicated because this may put our people at risk in places such as Peru or Colombia," he said.
Scientists in Uzbekistan are reported to have already tested the virulent strain of the fungus on poppy fields. They found that the fungus caused the poppy plant to erupt in lesions and fungal spores quickly spread between the plants to decimate the entire crop.
The former Soviet Union had a highly secret biological weapons programme which could have supplied much of the expertise for the project. Soviet scientists are known to have worked on anthrax weapons in breach of international treaties, as well as producing biological agents that could be used to destroy enemy crops.Reuse content