The Secret Life of Duboisia...

The South Burnett Region boasts the largest proportion of the world's Duboisia, yet it remains one of Australia’s most well-kept secrets.

The Farmers:

Boehringer Ingelheim and Alkaloids of Australia Pty Ltd. are the two major players in the Duboisia industry.

Carlee Neilson, Operations Manager at Alkaloids of Australia declined to comment on behalf of her corporation. She said, “our extraction process is proprietary and highly confidential.”

Sonie Crumpton, owner of Alkaloids of Australia further adds to the speculation by saying, “all of our Duboisia is under contract and due to the confidentiality agreement in place, I am unable to make any comment.”

As locals can agree, it makes you wonder what is really happening behind closed doors.

Despite the “clause of confidentiality” preventing both multi-million dollar companies from commenting, it’s interesting how much knowledge locals have on the native plant.

Various locals from all over the South Burnett were willing to share their understanding and experiences of the plant, however, they all asked to remain anonymous. Based on these conversations, it was unanimous that the Duboisia industry is highly secretive because of its relation to the pharmaceutical business.

An anonymous source says, "they could grow more of [the plant] if they wanted to, they have the space, but they are limiting how much they grow to keep the price up."

By lowering production and increasing the price, the plant becomes a highly sought after commodity.

A Kingaroy local agrees when she says, "that's the rumour. It's the same with peanuts. A lot of people are saying you can hardly find peanut farms anymore and Kingaroy used to be known for its peanuts. They could grow more, but I'm told they keep a limit on the crops to keep the price really high."

Pharmaceutical giant, Boehringer Ingelheim, own two Queensland plantations that span over 990 hectares. Similarly, family-owned Alkaloids of Australia, own over 2000 hectares of Duboisia plantations, not to mention the Crumpton family are major stakeholders in the Kingaroy’s peanut industry.

Ruth Mason says, "they make a lot of money! A lot of money! I'm not going to tell you how much because you'd quote it."

"I'm afraid it's a closed industry," she says.

With money comes power.

It’s clear that both multi-million dollar Duboisia corporations are the reason behind the tight-lipped locals.

South Burnett locals are proud of their region’s booming Duboisia industry, however, they appear to be mystified by the native plant.

“It’s very much a closed shop,” says Ruth Mason, who has been a volunteer at the Wondai Information Centre for the last 18 years.

She says, “The Courier Mail can’t even get the story.”

The Duboisia plant is a home-grown product... it resides in Australia’s own backyard, so why then are we being kept in the dark?

According to The Medical Journal of Australia, "97% of [the world's Duboisia] is grown around here," which plays an important role in the pharmaceutical industry.

The South Burnett Region of Queensland, "now supplies over half the world's requirement of hyoscine/scopolamine from Duboisia," which is used in medical products like Buscopan and Atropine eye drops.

Owner and Head Pharmacist of Wondai Pharmacy, Mike Phillips says, "they dry the leaves [of Duboisia] and then turn it into a dry powder [where they can] then extract the alkaloid and ship it overseas. A lot of the Burnett [product] goes to India or Germany. "

"Hyoscine, which is used in Buscopan tablets, relieves stomach cramps... and the other product is Atropine eye drops, [which] dilate your pupils," says the pharmacist.

Hyoscine is an alkaloid that works as a relaxant on the smooth muscle in the stomach and dilates the iris sphincter in the eyes, “which is commonly used by optometrists,” says Mr Phillips.

Occupational exposure to the dried plant material can result in one of two clinical syndromes: "cork-eye" or being "corked up." Pharmacologically, the leaf fragments and dust are extremely potent, which can cause mydriasis of the eye. This is known as "cork- eye," when the pupils become significantly dilated.

Mr Phillips says, "when your pupils are dilated, it's very hard to go out in the sun because you're letting so much light into your eye," which can cause short-term damage.

Being "corked up" results from "high exposure for more than several hours and produces intoxication, delirium or depression, irrationality [and] withdrawal," says The Medical Journal of Australia.

It’s safe to say then that the dried material of the plant is highly potent. This is perhaps why Duboisia is such a closed industry.

Source: Boehringer Ingelheim

By Makenna Baily

What we know about the native plant?

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Drought-tolerant crops:

Despite it being a highly secretive and closed industry, the common perception amongst locals in the region is that the “stumpy bush” is “a lot more drought tolerant,” says Wondai local Stuart Marquardt.

South Burnett Mayor, Keith Campbell agrees when he says, "Duboisia performs well in good seasonal conditions but even in the harder, less stable conditions.”

The South Burnett Region is currently facing one of its worst periods of drought. Mayor Campbell says, "this is as bad of a drought as we have seen in about 50 years or more."

According to Boehringer Ingelheim's Head of Farms, Mr Des Crane, "the Duboisia tree is not drought resistant, but it is drought tolerant. The biomass can vary by 50% in a dry year."

The dry weather of the region therefore ensures a high drug concentration of hyoscine, which is a pertinent alkaloid to the pharmaceutical industry.

The current drought is therefore bringing into question the future of agriculture in the South Burnett, and whether we will see farmers transitioning from traditional crops, like peanuts, corn and soya beans, to alternative, drought tolerant bio-crops.

The region appears to be well placed to capitalise on the pharmaceutical shrub and may provide our farmers with a new source of income in years to come.

 

Source: Boehringer Ingelheim

© 2019 by Makenna Baily

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