A History of Poppy Production
Poppy has been grown for centuries as a source of 'opium gum' recognised as a valuable pain reliever. Green capsules are 'lanced' to allow the release of a white latex, which dries to leave a brown gum known as opium. This gum contains over 40 alkaloids, as well as numerous other plant components.
1806: A complex chemical responsible for pain relieving properties was isolated from opium gum and called 'morphine', after Morpheus the Greek god of dreams.
1831: A process for the extraction of morphine hydrochloride from opium gum was developed at Edinburgh University.
1920s: Hungarian scientist, Janos Kabay, developed a process to extract morphine from dry poppy straw - an essential requirement for the future development of a mechanised harvest.
1951: Mr Stephen King (an agriculturalist) and Mr A. Bull (a chemical engineer) commenced work on the production of poppy straw in Britain on behalf of the Glaxo Group, as an insurance against the unreliable supply of opium from traditional producers. Although an eventual maximum crop area of 300 ha was achieved, the summer rainfall resulted in low alkaloid concentration (assay). The attempt to grow poppy in Britain was abandoned in 1957 and the search began for a more favourable climate.
Could a new industry be established?
1960/61: Trials were undertaken in New South Wales, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania (at Don, Scottsdale and Cressy). Poppy had been grown in Australia on a limited scale during World War II, but cultivation ceased after the war.
1964/65: Based on promising results in the previous four years, Tasmania was chosen as the location for all future development.
1965: Mr Stephen King moved to Tasmania to supervise research and commercial production, and growers formed the 'Oil Poppy Growers Association'
1969: The identification of a reliable and productive cultivar suited to Tasmanian conditions, effective selective weed control and the development of a modified forage harvester, provided the breakthroughs needed to allow expansion of the industry.
The industry develops ... and succeeds
1970: A factory was constructed at Latrobe in Tasmania for the receival, storage and processing of the crop, which had by now reached a growing area of 597ha. An existing Glaxo Australia Pty Ltd milk drying and antibiotic manufacturing plant at Port Fairy in Victoria was modified for alkaloid extraction.
1971/72: For the first time the crop produced sufficient morphine to supply the needs of Australia and New Zealand.
1973/74: Glaxo initiated the 'Top Crop' Award to the grower producing the highest return per hectare in the north of the State. The award was extended to the southern district in 1974/75 and has been awarded annually since that time. In April 1974 the first edition of 'Poppy Patter' was produced to provide growers with information on a range of topics affecting the industry.
1985: Continued growth in the industry resulted in Glaxo Australia supplying 13% of the world's requirement for opiate alkaloids.
1994: Glaxo Group purchased the pharmaceutical company Wellcome and became the world's largest pharmaceutical company.
1995: Continued development of the customer base led to Glaxo Wellcome Australia supplying 25% of the world market. The Company had over 450 growers and the value of the crop to the Tasmanian agricultural economy was well established. Approximately 90% of all production (both alkaloid and poppy seed) was being exported, providing a valuable export industry.
1997: An innovative incentive scheme for crop payment is launched, aimed to encourage and reward increased productivity.
1999: With over 700 growers and more than 10,000ha under cultivation, Glaxo Wellcome is firmly committed to consolidating and expanding its role in the world market.
2000: Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham merge to form a new company - GlaxoSmithKline - committed to ongoing leadership in the Tasmanian Poppy Industry.
2001: Modifications to the assay-based price scale are introduced to reinforce the importance and financial return of high-yielding crops. Those growers who can give their GSK poppy crop a high priority in their overall operations stand to gain significant financial benefits.