Tasmanian poppy growers ride the ups and downs of the global pharmaceutical industry

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When CSIRO set out to find farmers willing to experiment with a new crop in the 1960s, one of Australia’s great agricultural success stories was unleashed.

The meteoric rise of Tasmania’s poppy industry has seen the small island state become a powerhouse for the production of painkillers, responsible for half of the world’s market for the narcotic raw material needed to manufacture pharmaceuticals.

However, since 2012, the area of ​​land dedicated to poppies has fallen from 29,396 hectares to 8,282 hectares, while the thousand farmers involved have fallen to 306.

But the numbers don’t scare off Poppy Growers Tasmania boss Keith Rice, who remains confident in the industry’s future despite a wave of challenges.

“It’s still a great Tasmanian achievement,” he said.

“We are not going back to 30,000 hectares but hopefully in the next five to six years we can go back to 15,000 hectares.”

An overabundance of poppies

The first poppy crop to be harvested in Tasmania in 2022 took place at this sprawling property south of Cressy.(ABC Northern Tasmania: Craig Heerey)

Demand for poppies over the past decade has been badly hit by a global oversupply, largely due to prescription crackdowns following the opioid crisis in the United States.

This poppy glut has been compounded by COVID-19, which has led to the cancellation of many elective surgeries that require pain relief.

Amid these tumultuous times, one of Australia’s three big poppy processors Sun Pharma Sun Pharma reduced poppy production in April while another – Palla Pharma – went into voluntary administration in December.

Mr Rice said the market remained ‘fairly volatile’ but Tasmania was still in ‘a good, healthy and stable position’.

Mr Rice said poppy crops have become much more efficient and these productivity gains have offset the reduction in acreage.

He said the world was gradually using up its stocks of poppies and he was optimistic demand would increase once the pandemic subsided and elective surgery resumed.

“When we look at it as a whole, it is in a very good position and we hope that we will see market demand increase somewhat over the next two years.”

Hard decisions pay off

A pair of hands holding poppies.
Processor Extractas Bioscience has increased its acreage and thinks the future is bright.(Rural ABC: Lachlan Bennett)

Westbury-based processor Extractas Bioscience was forced to make big cuts a few years ago, but greener pastures are already in sight.

Field Operations Manager Noel Beven said this season they have been able to increase their cultivation area from around 3,000 hectares to 5,000.

“We’ve had a major restructuring at our Westbury factories and we’re a much lighter machine than we were,” he said.

“We had to significantly reduce the costs of the business to remain competitive and we believe we have done so.

A masked Helen O'Byrne stands in a pharmacy.
Helen O’Byrne says opiate use will increase as the country’s population ages.(Rural ABC: Lachlan Bennett)

Pharmacy Guild of Tasmania chairwoman Helen O’Byrne says new regulations, better training for doctors and the roll-out of real-time prescription tracking are also helping to restore community trust.

“Real-time prescription monitoring is currently happening in most jurisdictions in Australia.

“There’s this real-time view of a patient and whether they’ve had opiates before and whether they’ve seen other doctors, so a doctor can prescribe with confidence,” he said. she stated.

“The industry is still viable”

A farmer in a worn blue shirt kneels in a field of golden poppies, holding a few capsules in his hand.
Cressy farmer Roderic O’Connor says he will continue to grow poppies as long as he has contracts.(Rural ABC: Lachlan Bennett)

Roderic O’Connor has been growing poppy for 20 years and plans to invest in new irrigation to support poppy production.

Although prices aren’t what they used to be and the cost of inputs such as fertilizers have “skyrocketed”, it “still feels pretty good” in the industry.

“It would be a big loss for the state, for jobs, producers and income if we lost it,” he said.

“The industry is still viable as long as we produce above or above average crops.”

“When everything has…calmed down, then we can look to the future, a more stable future.”

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