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Slate's Explainer: Poppy Seeds and Afghan Opium

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In the news this week, Afghanistan's problem eradicating opium poppies. So we wondered if poppies are illegal, then where do the poppy seeds on bagels come from? Here's Slate's Andy Bowers with an Explainer.

ANDY BOWERS reporting:

Poppies come in different varieties, only some of which can produce narcotics. The opium poppy is used to make morphine, heroin and a number of other painkillers. Opium poppies also produce the seeds we put on bagels and in lemon pound cake. Growing poppies is legal in some countries with certain restrictions. The poppy seeds used in baking come from all over, but our two main sources are Turkey and the Netherlands. When you buy a bottle at your local store, chances are you're getting Dutch poppy seeds, which are a familiar blue-gray.

To harvest opium from a poppy, a farmer waits until the last petals of the flower have fallen off and then lances the seed pod, taking care not to cut too deep. Over the next half-day, opium will seep out through these holes in the form of a milky sap that can be scraped off the side of the pod. Later on, dried pods can be cut open to reveal a harvest of tiny seeds.

Rules for the legal cultivation of opium poppies were set out in the United Nations' Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961. Countries that produce and export opium must keep a close watch on the poppy farms within their borders. In Turkey, for example, poppy farmers harvest both the opium for legal pharmaceuticals and the seeds, but the Turkish government keeps an eagle eye on cultivation.

It's against the law to grow opium poppies in this country, although enforcement has been inconsistent in the case of small-time gardeners who grow them as ornamental flowers.

BRAND: That Explainer from Slate's Andy Bowers, with help from Daniel Engber.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Andy Bowers
Andy Bowers oversees Slate's collaboration with NPR?s daytime news magazine, Day to Day. He helps produce the work of Slate's writers for radio, and can also be heard on the program.
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