Afghanistan's opium farmers are facing a lean harvest due to a mystery fungus which has seriously affected half of Papaver somniferum poppies in the country's Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
The infection "attacks the root of the plant, climbs up the stem and makes the opium capsule wither away", the BBC outlines. Some farmers suggest NATO troops have sprayed their crops with chemicals, but this was rejected by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) head Antonio Maria Costa.
He said: "I don't see any reasons to believe something of that sort. Opium plants have been affected in Afghanistan on a periodic basis."
Farmer Haji Mohammad in Nawzad, Helmand province, explained to the BBC that while last year he'd harvested 450kg of opium, this year he was reduced to a paltry 4kg. Overall, the harvest could fall by 25 per cent this year, according to Costa.
The upshot of the blight is a sharp rise in opium prices - up 50 per cent, following a 30 per cent fall in value over the last 12 months. This hike could "impact on revenues for insurgent groups like the Taliban", Costa noted, since they have large stashes of opium.
The 2009 harvest was 6,900 tonnes, in excess of world demand of 5,000 tonnes, with the surplus adding to an estimated 10,000 tonnes stockpile held by cartels "in an effort to push up prices", as AFP puts it. UNODC quantified this opium mountain as "equal to two years' supply of heroin for addicts, or three years of morphine for medical use".
Mr Costa concluded that the fungal disease represented "an opportunity for the international community to bring in support to try to persuade farmers to turn away from planting opium".
Afghanistan produces 92 per cent of the world's opium, valued at $3bn a year, and its cultivators view the valuable crop as "one sure way of safe-guarding against an insecure future". ®