New crop opportunities

Previously this writer has noted new crop opportunities that should be pursued with more vigour.

Previously this writer has noted new crop opportunities that should be pursued with more vigour. I refer specifically to the growing of opium poppies for morphine production and marijuana for medicinal purposes and now soon for recreational use. This province is uniquely situated to grow both plants with the sophisticated field crop and greenhouse production systems already in place. We also have extensive crop and horticulture research facilities in Brooks, Lacombe and Lethbridge to back up the agronomy and science that is needed for successful production of both crops. The greenhouse industry continues to expand in Alberta with our favourable climate, sunshine and low-cost abundant nearby energy sources. It’s an industry that embraces technology and is owned and managed by some of the most skillful operators in agriculture. They could begin to grow these crops literally overnight.

Alberta growers have a history of growing a variety of field crops from beans to sugar beets to potatoes, including speciality crops like mint, dill weed, mustard and onions. Part of that successful production is the irrigation system that has been built up over the last 100 years. The point is that Alberta has all the ingredients to make the growing of poppies and marijuana quite successful whether in the field or in greenhouses. The other point is that had Alberta growers been given the market opportunity, they would already be growing those crops, but therein lays the problem – growers have not been free to cultivate and market those crops. The usual culprit is the federal government, which continues to dither on growing opium poppies. The excuse is that research is needed in how to control the production and marketing process – public safety is the rationalization. That’s bogus – Australia with over 30,000 acres in commercial opium poppy production is one of the world’s leading poppy growers and exporters of morphine and there is no indication that organized crime has taken over that business. The problem is that the federal Health Canada department seems impervious to making a decision in a reasonable time. One hopes that the present federal Liberal government would expedite a favourable poppy decision with the same determination as the legalisation of marijuana.

There is more hope for the growing of commercial marijuana in Alberta with the announcement that the federal government will be legalising it for recreational use in 2017. The precedent for the growing of marijuana for medicinal purposes, however, does not bode well for an easy legal protocol for other commercial production. The production is currently controlled by a few large corporate growers located mainly in Ontario and BC. Those producers jumped through a lot of legal and bureaucratic hoops to get into production and are likely to lobby hard to maintain existing production restrictions to thwart any new competition. Bureaucrats are more sympathetic to maintaining regulations than removing them – it’s just their nature. What this all requires is intense political will from the Alberta government.

The Alberta government has sent a letter of support for the commercial growing of opium poppies to the federal government, but it’s going to take more than just moral support. Such letters are easily derailed and buried by senior federal bureaucrats. What is needed is for the Alberta government to establish a high-level interdepartmental task force that would review all the present roadblocks to commercial poppy and marijuana production and how they need to be addressed and resolved – and, yes, what unilateral action can be taken by the Alberta government. That needs to be backed up with the experience of Australia with poppy production and the experience of Colorado and Washington with commercial marijuana production. Local crop science researchers, field crop and greenhouse growers associations and marketers also need to be part of the process. This should be an expedited process as Alberta should be ready to start growing those crops at the earliest possibility to get a jump on other provinces. With all its ducks in order, from research to growing to production to marketing, the Alberta government should then proceed with a full court press on the federal government and bureaucracy.

Crop diversification should be an ideal issue for the Alberta government to vigorously pursue – it has the potential to create hundreds of new jobs in agriculture, and the production of much needed medicine. It’s sustainable, replaces $700 million of morphine imports, it’s a new source of tax revenue, and it’s not energy industry related – all of which connects to the much stated economic diversification goal of the Alberta government.