11:06 pm - Wednesday November 4, 2015

There are many ways to wage war

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Is China going to eat up the whole world?
Is China going to eat up the whole world?

The most obvious one is to use weapons and armies, kill the enemy and damage their property. The other one is to damage their crops and make them die of hunger. Many countries have thought of this.

This is where insects are the ultimate weapons. They can be used in two ways: to spread disease and to bring a country to its knees through starvation. “Entomological warfare could be turned into military strategy” says Jeffrey Lockwood, author of Six legged Soldiers, a remarkable book I have just finished reading.

I grew up in a time where everyone in India believed (and many believe till today) that the Parthenium plant, called Congress weed, and Gajarghas which has proved so damaging to India, was deliberately sent to us by America through its PL 480 donation of wheat in the 60s. The plant spreads asthma, eczema and has been responsible for the suffering of lakhs of people. Who knows the truth? Cuba believes that America tried to destroy its agriculture by releasing the insects, thrips, to destroy the island’s agriculture and in 1997 a formal complaint was made to the UN which, predictably, said it was an “accidental” introduction. The North Vietnamese have also accused America of destroying their fields with “killer insects”.

America has suffered from insect invasions as well. The Asian long horned beetle that appeared in 1995 has inflicted millions of dollars of damage without anyone discovering how it entered. In 1989 a group of people threatened to release Medflies into California, an insect that destroys fruit orchards. The calculated losses would have exceeded 14 billion, more than the entire budget of many nations.

During the Second World War, all the big nations opened laboratories to develop insects to use on each other as part of war strategy. They thought along the lines of releasing flies, lice and mosquitoes to spread typhus, malaria, yellow fever and the plague. Ultimately the insect that became the focus of military attention was a small black and yellow non-biting, non-disease spreading, herbivorous insect – the Colorado Potato Beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata).

Discovered 200 years ago in the Rocky Mountains of America the beetle was a harmless insect that ate a poisonous plant called Deadly Nightshade. As America took to farming, the beetle travelled and found that it preferred potatoes, eggplants, peppers, tomatoes and tobacco. It started wreaking havoc from coast to coast.

The alarmed Europeans banned the import of American potatoes. They had just recovered by the middle 1800s from the Great Famine which started with the fungal rotting of potatoes in Ireland, which claimed the lives of 1 million people. So Europe remained beetle free. But during the First World War the Americans and their supplies inadvertently brought the beetle in.

In 1938 Haldane, a British scientist, wrote a paper called Science and the Future of Warfare in which he talked about normal insects being far more important in winning battles than poisonous gases. “It would be very surprising, for example, if insect pests, such as the potato beetle , were not introduced into this country by hostile aeroplanes in the course of a future war. The potato beetle would not cause a famine but it would cause a certain amount of trouble and keep a certain number of people busy who could be used for other purposes…”

A brilliant prediction. In May 1939 a section of the French military establishment proposed a system of dropping beetles on enemy potato fields. By September the Colorado Potato Beetle was being produced and release methods were being tested in Cazaux.

In 1940 the Germans invaded France and discovered this programme, even though the French had tried to destroy it. They assumed that if the French were getting ready for beetle warfare, so were the British and Americans. The Germans had already suspected attacks by the beetle would be on the enemy’s agenda and had started a Potato Beetle Defence Service with 632 men in charge of finding and guarding 2 million acres of potato fields. An outbreak of the beetle in Bavaria and Thuringia gave them proof. In 1942, the Germans received information that the British were planning to throw 15,000 beetles into their fields. The military decided that it was not good enough to be on the defensive. A decision was taken to create an army of beetles and Professor Heinrich Kliewe was put in charge. A Potato Beetle Research Institute was created to grow beetles and find ways to disseminate them. At war meetings scientists said that 20-40 million beetles would be needed for the potato fields of Britain. Field trials started in 1943 by dropping beetles from planes in their own country – resulting in a major outbreak in Southern Germany (how stupid is that !). By 1944 the scientists had stockpiled these millions and were ready for an attack.

There is no evidence that the attacks took place, except a report from the Isle of Wight where children were supposedly put to work secretly to round up beetles and put them into boiling water.

But Britain had already been concerned about a beetle attack. In 1941 the British Prime Minister received an official warning from the head of the biological warfare programme that the beetle was going to be used by the Germans (before they thought about it!). Churchill ordered beetles to be flown in from the USA. This shipment was intercepted by the Germans in 1942, who interpreted this as evidence of offensive preparations by Britain and started developing their own insect army – a self fulfilling prophecy!

Long after World War II had ended and given birth to the Cold War between the Russians and Americans, accusations carried on regarding the beetle. East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland regularly accused America of trying to starve their countries by seeding them with the beetle. East European newspapers and TV showed beetle containers being dropped from the sky by parachutes and the beetle was renamed Amikafer (American beetle). The British accused the Russians of using the beetle in 1969 in a Geneva conference of nations. A United Nations report was made – which, predictably gave no answers. In 1999 the Russians accused the Americans of secretly releasing beetles in their country.

I wonder how many countries are readying for the next wave of hostilities and which insects are now the focus of attention.

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

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