The Golden Triangle took on new meaning when the heart-shaped Apple
Isle became a big producer of (licensed) opium poppies. But UK company
GlaxoSmithKline will slash its Tasmanian poppy grower contracts by 90%
next season, down to 500 hectares from this year’s 5,000. Almost
500 growers supply seed to the company with the lost contracts worth up
to $12 million. The cause? A world oversupply of opiate products and
depressed prices. On the other side of the opium dollar, Tasmanian
Alkaloids – a subsidiary of US multinational Johnson & Johnson –
will lift production from 3,500 hectares to 7,000 hectares.

At its peak in 2000 and 2001, 20,000 hectares of poppies were under
cultivation and many farmers found opium their saviour when the bottom
fell out of the wool market. Tasmanian Poppy Growers Association’s
Keith Rice says the GlaxoSmithKline cut came out of the blue, telling
Crikey this morning: “It was a shock and will have a major
impact.” But Tasmanian Alkaloids’ Rick Rockliff told Crikey the company
had made cuts after the boom seasons and could reward its farmers.

Given the volatility of the market, an alternative, alternative crop
could be Indian hemp. Cannabis by any other name, but this industrial
hemp is low in THC, the main narcotic ingredient. Keith Rice says it
won’t be a substitute, farmers might grow 50 hectares to start: “This
may be an opportunity we should grasp.”

As early as 1989, hemp pioneers Frits (FRITS) and Patsy Harmsen put in
a submission to the State Government for a hemp pulp mill for paper.
But Patsy told Crikey their moves to establish a hemp industry fell
foul of the US sphere of influence – as did others around the world –
because of potential competition with US industries, notably chemicals
and synthetics. Hemp Co-operative of Tasmania’s Brandt Teale says the
Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association held a meeting of its new
Hemp Task Force on 28 March, which looked at hemp as an alternative to
poppies. Teale says it could supply oil and fibre to a range of
industries. Not to mention food – if the State Government sees beyond
magic cakes.

Peter Fray

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