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A mysterious disease is blighting Afghan opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) destroying nearly half of the opium harvest in 2010, according to a report published in September by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Production in 2010 was at its lowest level since 2003, estimated at 3,600 tonnes – a 48% decrease from 6,900 tonnes in 2009. 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 UNODC, 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 up 164% from $64 (£40) per kg in 2009 to $169 per kg this year. 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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