When the World Health Organization reclassified glyphosate-based herbicides as a possible carcinogen back in March, it was an unexpected boon to rebel groups in Colombia. Until recently, the controversial herbicide had been the Colombian government’s weapon of choice in battling cocaine crops that fund the fighting. Last week, the country’s president Juan Manuel Santos announced that they would stop using the herbicide, which has been linked to miscarriages, skin issues and even cancer. Glyphosate is the main ingredient in Roundup.
Santos’ decision is a great victory for people’s health and the environment, but also for the rebels who often employ armed guards to protect the crops, making manual eradication daunting. With all of this in mind, the government is looking for alternative ways to destroy the crops – one idea that is being considered is employing coca-loving caterpillars that would make mincemeat of the harvest.
For years now a number of scientists have promoted the idea of using the cocaine tussock moth to do the dirty work. The moth Eloria noyesi, known as "el gringo" by the locals, only lays its eggs on coca leaves; which the caterpillars then consume. Carlos Alberto Gomez, president of the privately funded National Network of Botanical Gardens says, “Its instincts allow it to find coca plants wherever they are.”
The scheme would include rearing thousands of the moths in a lab, then releasing them in the jungles where the guerilla groups grow their bounty. Gomez says that the moths will go straight for the coca plants, lay gobs of eggs and wipe out the coca once their caterpillars hatch.
Using insects to take the place of unhealthy chemicals is wonderfully poetic on paper – and maybe it would work beautifully, and just about anything has got to be better than glyphosate – but we’ve seen again and again that fighting one living thing with the orchestrated influx of another living thing can bring about unwanted consequences. And there’s a vocal group of those who are concerned about introducing a wide swath of tussock moths into the environment.
Gonzalo Andrade, a butterfly researcher at Bogota’s National University, says that of the five species of Colombia’s coca crops, only one or two can be used to produce cocaine. “If the moth turns out to eat other coca species, I wouldn’t be so sure about deploying it because it could destroy [legal] coca crops used by indigenous communities for traditional purposes," he says.
Ricardo Vargas, director of the environmental group Andean Action, says that unleashing a large population of moths into the area could throw the local ecosystem into confusion. "With a plan like this, the chance for ecological mischief is very high and very dangerous," Vargas told the Associated Press in 2005.
Which might not be a problem if the rebels decide to fight the moths with insecticides, which would introduce a whole new crop of potential health issues.