Colombia has long been a country infamous for being one of the world's top producers of cocaine, a drug derived from the coca plant. For years, the South American nation has been air-bombing carcinogenic herbicides on illegal coca plantations in their effort to stamp out the problem, with dire environmental and public health consequences.
But now a new, all-natural solution is in the works, reports Popular Science. The head of Bogota’s Quindio Botanical Garden has proposed replacing those cancer-causing herbicides with the coca plant's natural nemesis: caterpillars-- specifically, caterpillars of the Cocaine Tussock Moth (Eloria Noyesi).
When fully grown, Eloria Noyesi is a fairly plain-looking beige moth. But in its larval stage, this insect has an insatiable appetite for coca leaves. A single caterpillar consumes up to 1.5 times their body weight in leaves each day. In fact, the bug's taste for coca leaves is so voracious that it has been nicknamed "el gringo." Even more convenient, scientists believe that this caterpillar only eats coca leaves, so it could conceivably wreak havoc on illegal coca growers without harming other plants.
The idea is to breed the moths in large numbers and then rain them down on illegal plantations. Once females lay their eggs-- a single female can produce over 1,000 eggs in its lifetime-- they will be extremely difficult to eradicate.
Before putting the plan in place, however, Colombian officials promise to do their due diligence. A careful study is planned to confirm whether Eloria Noyesi only targets the two types of coca plants that are used to make cocaine. If the moth targets other plants too, then there are concerns that releasing the insect could have other, unforeseen ecological effects.
"There are five species of coca in Colombia, and only one or two of them can be used to make cocaine," said Gonzalo Andrade, a biology professor and butterfly researcher at Bogota’s National University. "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."
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