Prague, 13 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- About 26,000 people are killed every year by the 100 million land mines believed to be scattered around the world.
In the world's most densely mined country, Afghanistan, up to 10 people die each day after accidentally wandering into mined areas. Most are returning refugees, including children. Many of the victims are farmers trying to bring devastated areas back into agricultural use.
Removing mines and making them safe is relatively easy. Detecting them is difficult and risky. Conventional methods, using electronic mine detectors, heavy machines, sniffer dogs, or gentle probes into the ground using a sharp object, are time-consuming, costly -- and dangerous. Sometimes, those searching for mines become victims themselves.
"So it was really a combination of profound research and motivation for making a difference and showing that you can really do something with genetically modified plants."
Now, a Danish company called Aresa Biodetection believes it has found a cheaper and safer method to find land mines by using a plant that changes color when it detects explosives in the soil. It has conducted tests using a genetically modified thale cress plant. The thale cress family includes the cress plant used often in salads and also the weeds that grow in sidewalk cracks.
Aresa's modified plant changes color from green to red within three to six weeks after its roots detect nitrogen dioxide leaking from explosives inside a mine. The land mines beneath the cress can then be removed more safely.
Aresa CEO Simon Ostergaard said the idea is the brainchild of one of the firm's founders, molecular scientist Carsten Meier, who wanted to work on a project that combined science with a desire to help people. "The project was about getting a color change in a plant to detect components in the soil and maybe explosives or heavy metals or other components," he said. "So it was really a combination of profound research and motivation for making a difference and showing that you can really do something with genetically modified plants."
Ostergaard said the modified plant was created last January by the company, which has been working on the project since 2001. "At this stage, we have a prototype that we are able to induce the color change when the plants are growing in soil infected with explosives," he said. "We need to produce a lot of plant lines that we need to screen for the right sensitivity to be sure that we can go down to levels and detect a very, very tiny amount of explosives."
Organizations already engaged in mine clearance are following the work of the Danish company with interest. Some, like the charity Norwegian People Aid, are optimistic about the potential of the new method. The group's senior adviser on land mines, Geir Bjoersvik, called the development a "welcome addition" to current methods of detection if further testing proceeds successfully.
But some are expressing doubts about the plant. One group questioned whether the freshly planted cress could attract livestock into mined areas. The British organization Mines Advisory Group (MAG) is also skeptical. Its spokesman, Sean Sutton, wondered where the method could be used. "What we've yet to know is where this is likely to work, what sort of conditions it would work in," he said. "Would it work in the sort of terrain where you find mines, which is swamps, deserts, jungles, mountainsides, etc.?"
Aresa's Ostergaard said the company's priority is to use it for farmland, the areas most postconflict governments want cleared of mines first. The cress, like agricultural crops, needs water. Later, he said, research could be done to see if the method could work on more difficult terrain. "Initially, we want to clear potential farmland -- so, land that can be used for agricultural production," he said.
As for how suspected mine fields can be safely sown with the thale cress seed, Ostergaard said: "We have developed a method where you use a conventional pump. You clear a path into the land-mine-infected area, and from this path you can actually spray the seeds 25 meters, up to 100 meters on each side of the path, and by then you are able to cover the land mine-infected area from the side" He added that some areas could be sprayed with seeds from planes.
MAG's Sutton said sniffer dogs also work by following the scent of nitrogen dioxide, but noted that the dogs are unable to detect all types of mines. Rats have also been used, but without much success. "There are a number of mines and items of ordnance which are very well sealed and wouldn't necessarily leak nitrogen dioxide, so you wouldn't be able to use this as a foolproof system," he said.
Ostergaard agreed that this problem needs to be investigated. He said that, at first, Aresa's method would be used as a supplement to other methods of mine detection. But he is confident of its ability to detect all types of mines. "But we will show that you clear 100 percent because that is actually the goal for demining -- to go for the 100 percent," he said.
Ostergaard said it will be at least two years before the method is tested in real mine fields. "What we are aiming for is to do testing next year and large-scale tests in 2006," he said. "Actual areas where we want to be -- we haven't fixed plans -- but we are certainly considering Bosnia and Croatia, Sri Lanka, possibly Africa, and Southeast Asia." He said the next tests will be conducted with the help of the Danish Army.