Book Review of "Biological Warfare Against Crops (Global Issues)"by Simon M. Whitby, Palgrave, Basingstoke, UK, 2002. £47.50 hbk (271 pages) ISBN 0 333 92085 6

Review by Willie Russell

Given the current anxieties about the possibilities of biological warfare, another book on the topic seems particularly appropriate. However, this publication is rather different from its predecessors in that it provides the first substantive account of state-sponsored efforts to devise biological weapons against crops. In principle, such weapons could be of great value in a conflict because they could be produced and dispersed with minimal hazard to the operators and could be capable of inflicting damage to the economy and health of a target population. This book shows that, in practice, in spite of considerable efforts for greater than 30 years by several countries (particularly the USA) there have been no reliable reports of successful deployment of such weapons.

The account is essentially a historical overview of activities undertaken, mostly by the UK and the USA, in this area from the 1940s to the 1970s when the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWTC) was introduced, which led to the cessation of bioweapons development. Simon Whitby is evidently not a plant scientist and his text will be primarily of interest to historical scholars and those concerned with ensuring that the BTWC is maintained and strengthened.

The data in the book has been derived mainly from a variety of official (declassified) sources. Nevertheless, because this whole area has always been the subject of considerable secrecy there seems little doubt that many aspects of these activities have still not been revealed.

The major findings seem to point to the plant fungal pathogens as being the weapons of choice. The USA carried out a significant anti-crop programme at Fort Detrick (MD) with extensive field testing until 1969. Special attention was paid to producing spores of wheat stem rust, rye stem rust, potato blight and rice blast disease, and these were stockpiled until they were destroyed under the provisions of the BTWC in the 1970s. The accounts bear witness to the many problems that were encountered – the major ones being the retention of viability for stockpiling and the efficient weaponization and dispersal of the agents. Because the investigations were carried out some 40–50 years ago, the descriptions of the procedures read more like cookbook recipes, for example, '...4 lb of dehydrated potatoes, 5 lb of ground black peat, 4 lb of ground peanut shells and 3 eggs per lb were mixed...'. By applying today's more sophisticated techniques it is obvious that progress in devising bioweapons would be much more rapid if the present shaky political equilibrium maintained by the BTWC was abandoned.

The book does provide some useful reminders of the development of anti-crop activities. For example, although most observers are aware of the widespread deployment of chemical defoliants such as Agent Orange in Vietnam in the 1960s, not so many know that the UK employed similar tactics in meeting the counter insurgency in Malaya in the 1950s. Originally a defoliant was sprayed on the edges of jungle roads to reduce the possibility of ambushes but later this was apparently extended to release agents from helicopters as part of a food-denial programme.

A chapter is devoted to more recent attempts to develop anticrop agents by Iraq. According to the United Nations inspection team, the Iraqis were experimenting with a fungal disease of wheat, presumably to attack cereal production in Iran. Small field tests were carried out but weaponization was apparently not attempted.

The book is a timely reminder that this form of bioterrorism could be an effective weapon and especially so with the substantial advances that have now been made in our understanding of plant pathogens. Moreover, with the knowledge of the devastation that can be caused by plant virus diseases and our much greater understanding of plant virology and of the biology of many of their insect vectors, very effective virus bioweapons could be produced.

Whitby also points out that the BTWC in its ad hoc sessions is still functioning (for example, South Africa submitted a paper in 1997 on anti-crop agents) and more recently the European Union has agreed to press for a legally binding BTWC protocol establishing an effective verification and compliance regime. The USA has been reluctant to agree to this development and indeed it has been reported that they have deployed anti-crop measures against coca (Erythroxylum coca) plantations in their current anti-drug programme in Columbia, apparently spraying plants with glyphosate (Roundup, Monsanto, St Louis, MO, USA) and infecting plants with a fungus (Fusarium oxysporum). Given these observations and the account in this book, it would seem incumbent on plant scientists to keep abreast of the politics of the BTWC.

From BioMed Net March 15, 2002

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