Government approval eludes poppy production projects

Poppies can grow on a commercial level in southern Alberta, but will they?

Glen Metzler of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients Lab (API) is beginning to wonder.

He and others have been involved in a project since 2007 to grow poppy seed in the province, initially for culinary use. At present all poppy seed must be imported.

But progress has stalled because of Health Canada regulations and approvals needed to grow the crop.

Agriculture Canada, on the one hand, supported the project with a $450,000 repayable loan in 2012 to establish poppy cultivation and develop the high-value crop. API supplemented that with several million in private funds, said Metzler.

Health Canada, on the other hand, has not given approval for poppy cultivation, nor has it provided a requested exemption, said Metzler. Poppy cultivation is prohibited in Canada because of potential for illegal drug trade.

Metzler said the type API proposes to grow for culinary use does not pose that risk.

“The variety we propose to grow now, for seed production only, has absolutely no potential, zero potential for illicit use or for public safety concerns, because there’s not enough morphine or alkaloid in the pod that can actually be utilized. It’s like comparing hemp to marijuana.”

Metzler said API has been making loan payments on the $450,000 from Ag Canada for two years. It was supposed to use proceeds from commercial poppy seed sales to repay it, but it still does not have the necessary licensing from Health Canada.

“One arm of government is giving you money and signing contracts with you and another arm of government is stopping you from fulfilling your contract. So how do you go forward?” asked Metzler.

“How do you expect to develop entrepreneurship in this country if you will give all the incentives for business to develop these new industries but then you won’t get out of the way from a regulatory perspective so that business could actually move forward?”

Metzler described this dilemma June 18 when he and API board member Ryan Mercer appeared before the House of Commons agriculture committee in Ottawa.

The Liberal government has an initiative to drastically increase its agricultural exports and Metzler said API could be part of that if it gets the needed government co-operation.

API labs eventually plans to build a processing plant for pharmaceuticals, using raw materials from a thebaine poppy on which it holds a patent, said Metzler. Those raw materials are primarily used for pain relief, a multibillion-dollar sector in North America.

But its first goal is to grow culinary seed and establish the viability of poppy cultivation on the Prairies.

At the committee hearing, Metzler and Mercer said poppies would provide another option for crop diversification and have potential for export. Though mostly used as a condiment, poppy seed can also produce food grade oil, animal feed supplements, biofuel and cosmetic ingredients.

Canada is the only country in the G7 that does not commercially produce or process poppies, Metzler told the committee.

He said the current impasse may leave API with no choice but to move its operations elsewhere.

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