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28 April 2008

Poppy Farming

Keith Rice: It's very interesting, the history of poppy-growing in Tasmania. It commenced just after the Second World War. It was determined that they needed to spread the risk across the world - it was principally grown in the Northern Hemisphere - and to find somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. Research was conducted in Australia and particularly in Tasmania. And that's where the industry really started, with its first crop coming off, a trial crop by Glaxo, in 1964. And Tasmanian Alkaloids commenced in 1970.

And the industry's grown from those humble beginnings to be the world leader at this time. The industry in Tasmania produces approximately 50% of the raw material for the world pharmaceutical industry to be used in pain management. The number of growers that we have from year to year can vary, depending on the demands of the crop. 2001-2002 was about the peak of the industry where there was approximately 20,000 hectares of crop grown. About 1,300 growers grew that crop.

The industry in Tasmania's highly regulated. It's under the control of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs down through the Australian Government and then it devolves down through the Tasmanian Government and administered by its regulatory authority, the Poppy Advisory and Control Board. There are a number of uses for our poppy crop. Obviously, its principal use is that of the raw material for pain management. But many viewers would be aware of poppy seed that they see on their breads and on their rolls and buns and so forth. And that's where much of the seed goes.

Terry Stuart: This particular crop we're in this morning is a morphine crop, grown specifically for morphine. Outside of the cap is where the morphine alkaloid is arranged by nature. There are two elements of the poppy that are important to the industry. One is obviously the narcotic material that's on the outside case of the poppy capsule itself. And the second element is, in fact, the seed, which is in much demand for culinary use throughout the world. The other option that farmers have beyond the morphine crop is in fact to grow noscapine. The alkaloid from a noscapine crop is grown specific for cough mixtures, and not for pain management. Another alternative, and very substantially grown, is the thebaine crop. Once again, it's a starter material for narcotic pain relief, particularly grown for the American market.

Keith Rice: The crop is not the easiest crop in the world to grow. Nearly all the crop grown in Tasmania is grown under irrigation where, in the early days, a lot was grown on dry land. The industry has a very high profile and remains a high profile in respect of research and development both within the structures of the companies - that is, within their factories and processing centres that they have. Both companies put enormous effort into research and development outside the factory gate, if I could put it that way. They're always looking at new methodologies of growing the crop. The harvesting machines have advanced enormously over the last 30 years. Very sophisticated processes now. Even the trucks with which we cart the product from the harvester to the factory are now all in sealed bins from when they go to the paddock and when they leave the paddock to get to the factory.

Desmond Harding: Snapping very nicely. Nice and dry. Good average. Better-than-average sized capsules.

Keith Rice: Once the crop's harvested, it goes into large trucks. Then it's transported to the processing companies which are situated in Tasmania. It goes there, into a secure area on those companies. It's then weighed and samples are taken of that particular crop to assess the assays. And so that's how the growers are paid. Generally speaking, they're paid by yield and assay.

Desmond Harding: It was a very nice crop. And it's the type of thing that we're looking for. So we're on a winner.