Australia’s island of poppies rides booms and busts of global painkiller business

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Australia’s island of poppies rides booms and busts of global painkiller business

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When the CSIRO went looking for farmers willing to experiment with a new crop back in the 1960s, one of Australia's great agricultural success stories

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When the CSIRO went looking for farmers willing to experiment with a new crop back in the 1960s, one of Australia’s great agricultural success stories was unleashed.

Key points:

  • A global oversupply of poppies and a crackdown on prescriptions has affected demand
  • Tasmanian farmers still produce about half of the global supply
  • The industry is optimistic about future growth and productivity gains

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

However, since 2012, the amount of land dedicated to poppies has fallen from 29,396 hectares to 8,282 hectares, while the thousand-odd farmers involved has shrunk to 306.

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

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

“We won’t go back to 30,000 hectares but I would hope that over the next five to six years we might move up to 15,000 hectares.”

A glut of poppies

A drone captures a sprawling field of poppies, with a large harvester truck hard at work.

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

Demand for poppies over the past decade has been severely impacted by a global oversupply, largely driven by the crackdown on prescriptions in the wake of the US opioid crisis.

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

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

Mr Rice said the market remained “quite volatile” but Tasmania was still in “a good and sound and stable position”.

Mr Rice said poppy crops had become much more efficient and those productivity gains had offset the reduced growing area.

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

“When we look at it across the board, it’s in a very good and sound position and we’re hoping that we will see market demand increase somewhat over the next couple of years.”

Tough decisions pay off

A pair of hands holding poppies.

Processor Extractas Bioscience has increased its crop area and believes the future is bright.(ABC Rural: 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 were able to increase their crop area from around 3,000 hectares to 5,000.

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

“We had to cut a lot of costs from the business to remain competitive and we believe we’ve done that.

A masked Helen O'Byrne stands in a pharmacy.

Helen O’Byrne says the use of opiates will increase with the country’s ageing population.(ABC Rural: Lachlan Bennett)

New regulation, greater education for doctors and the rollout of real-time prescription monitoring is also helping to rebuild community trust, according to Pharmacy Guild of Tasmania president Helen O’Byrne.

“Real-time prescription monitoring happens in most jurisdictions across Australia now.

“There is that 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,” she said.

‘Industry is still viable’

A farmer in a worn blue shirt kneels in a golden field of poppies, holding a few capsules in his hand.

Cressy farmer Roderic O’Connor says he’ll continue to grow poppies for as long as he’s given contracts.(ABC Rural: Lachlan Bennett)

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

While prices are not what they used to be and the cost of inputs such as fertiliser have “skyrocketed”, he still “feels pretty good” about the industry.

“It would be a great loss to the state, for employment and growers and returns if we lost it,” he said.

“The industry is still viable as long as we produce higher or better-than-average crops.”

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

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