Southern Alberta may be the perfect location for artemisia annua, a new annual crop that would help ease the burden of malaria in Third World countries. The compound artemisinin is isolated from the plant and used as a drug to treat multi-drug-resistant strains of malaria.
Paul Watson of the Alberta Research Council (ARC) in Vegreville says the global supplies of artemesia annua, also known as sweet wormwood, annual wormwood or sweet annie, are inadequate to meet demand. That’s part of the reason why researchers think there’s opportunity for the crop in Alberta. Watson was in Taber in early March to speak to producers at Southern Applied Research Association’s annual meeting.
In other places of the world, artemesia annua is grown as a horticultural crop. Watson says it actually does better as a field crop. Alberta’s advantage is in producers who know how to farm well on large acres. While there’s concern that other countries such as China will out-price any product coming from Alberta, Watson says if Alberta can grow artemesia annua as a field crop, it will have a price advantage over China.
After several years of research and field trials, Watson and his colleagues at ARC are convinced that artemesia annua can be grown in Alberta. Biomass production exceeded expectations by seven times. Rather than the expected 1,300 kilograms per hectare, the trials produced 9,730 kilograms per hectare. The next question is whether the plants would still produce artemisinin. There again, results also exceeded expectations.
From the trials, Watson and his team found that the plants grew to be six feet tall with a dense canopy, favoured heat, were not bothered by drought after establishment and were also fairly frost tolerant. “It looks to be a very profitable little business,” says Watson.
Globally, the demand for artemesia annua is about 100,000 acres. While Alberta could meet that demand very easily, Watson says a viable operation would begin at about five to 10,000 acres with several growers and a facility to extract the compound artemisinin.
“We’re not looking for more growers right now, but we have a lot of offers to grow Artmesia annua. There may be opportunities for expansion in the future, especially as new uses for the compound emerge, such as for treating cancer,” says Watson. “We are, however, looking for a home for a processing facility.” Capital costs for the construction of a facility to extract artemisinin from the plants is estimated to cost about $2.2 million. Since southern Alberta is a prime place for growing Artmesia annua, ARC is in talks with Taber and the municipal district about the extraction facility.
The next step for ARC is to form a company with various partners, where growers own the land and have most of the required equipment already available. The extraction facility would be owned and operated by growers, with profitability in value-added products, says Watson.
Once a company is established, production technologies need to be optimized. The first commercial planting is set for 2010.
Some producers will grow artemesia annua this year, mostly near Vermilion, but Watson would like to see some plots in southern Alberta as well, perhaps through the Southern Applied Research Association. From there, samples can be collected and sent to secure commercial contracts.
Malaria affects more than one million people a year. “The problem is substantial, a proven market has been identified, there are prospective partners, and the proposed solution is attainable. The pieces are all there, we just need to put them together,” says Watson. Future research will be required in order to access or develop suitable varieties for Canada and for higher artemisinin production. More in-depth agronomic knowledge will also be needed as more growers are added to the project.