The next time you reach for a painkiller, the pill you pop probably came from a farmer’s field filled with pink and white flowers on the other side of the world.
The poppy fields of Tasmania provide the opiates for almost half the global supply of pain relief drugs. Whether codeine or cough syrup, the arsenal in your medicine cabinet likely is derived from 62,000 acres of Tasmanian poppies. (Tasmanian poppy acreage is dwarfed by Afghanistan’s 500,000 acres and Burma’s 100,000 acres, but that harvest feeds the opium and heroin trade.)
Opiate paste is obtained from a poppy’s capsule and a few inches of the upper stem. The dried paste and poppy material essentially goes into the manufacture of morphine, codeine and thebaine — vital to the medical industry. Worth over $100 million to Tasmanian agriculture, poppies are only grown by farmers with special government licenses and manufacturer contracts. Each year, roughly 800 producers farm Tasmania’s heavily regulated 62,000 poppy acres — with yield averaging about 1 ton per acre, according to the Poppy Advisory and Control Board.
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Poppy farming is a cash cow the Tasmanian agriculture industry wants to keep inside the paddock for as long as possible, but mainland Australia wants a piece of the profit, and acreage expansion to other states would spread risk in case of a lost season or natural disaster. It would also break Tasmania’s Australian monopoly.
Tasmanian farmers like Cliff Hingston are digging in. "Everyone that I know is dead against it going outside of Tasmania. It makes you nervous about future investments," he told The Examiner. "If we can't supply it, I wouldn't have a problem with it, but at the moment I think we can. I don't think they have explored the option of storage enough. It's a bit like setting yourself up for a drought; you fill your barns with hay and your silos with grains and they can do it too. All it needs is federal legislation to allow them to store in addition to what they do now.''
Trial plantings are currently underway in Victoria, but the Tasmanian government is calling for a five-year moratorium on interstate expansion. From AM: "Opium is the key ingredient for pain relief drugs such as codeine and morphine. Demand is growing as populations in the developed world age and developing nations get richer. Tasmanian farmers have been growing poppies since the 1960s but the industry is outgrowing the island state and looking to the mainland … There are 13 trial sites across Victoria, involving three companies. One company has also run trials in the Northern Territory. It has Tasmanian growers concerned that their share of the industry is about to shrink."
Arguably the most unique of specialty crops, one factor is certain for poppy farmers: Demand for pharmaceutical painkillers is going nowhere but up. No poppies; no opiates.
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