More Triffid flax found, suspected overseas

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The flax variety that’s become the bane of the Canadian industry is now at least suspected to have turned up in 10 more flax shipments overseas.

The European Commission’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), a database of food safety alerts, now lists 11 separate cases in which FP967, the identification number for the genetically-modified, never-commercialized flax variety CDC Triffid, was found or suspected to have been found in shipments of flax for food use.

Triffid, which was bred in Saskatchewan in the 1990s and only briefly registered for use in food and feed in Canada and the U.S., was first reported early last month to have been found by a company in Germany during a check of its cereal and bakery products.

Most of the subsequent cases list Triffid as “suspected” where unauthorized genetically modified material has turned up in flax from Canada. In most cases, the RASFF reports, the flax in question went into cereal and bakery products that are now being pulled from the market.

The GM-shy European Union, which has no tolerance levels for GM material in flax, had previously been a major buyer of Canadian flax. Triffid has been deregistered since 2001 and was never commercialized, nor have any other GM flaxes.

“Unanswered questions”

Now the European market is closed, flax suspected to contain Triffid has spread out to over two dozen countries within and outside the EU including South Korea, Thailand and Iceland, and flax industry officials and the Canadian Grain Commission have yet to discover how an old and uncommercialized GM flax made its way overseas.

“It’s been nearly a month since contamination was first found, but neither the Canadian government nor industry has come forward with any answers,” National Farmers Union president Stewart Wells, an organic producer at Swift Current, Sask., said in a release Monday.

“The continued uncertainty and unanswered questions show the need for more strict regulation of GM crops in Canada.”

Other ag activists say a bigger problem is the potential implication that GM crop genetics can’t be effectively controlled once they’re released into the environment.

“Farmers face the threat of unwanted contamination from GM crops, even when the crops are not supposed to be grown,” said Arnold Taylor, an organic flax grower who leads the Organic Agriculture Protection Fund of the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate.

“Someone’s going to have to pay for testing our crops for contamination and any required cleanup. Who will be liable?”

Flax growers are already smarting from the cases and suspected cases listed by the EU. The Reuters news service on Monday quoted Flax Council of Canada president Barry Hall as saying the cash price of flaxseed has fallen sharply, from grain companies making no offers at all to well below the normal price of C$10-C$11 per bushel.

The U.S. market is still open to Canadian flax, Reuters noted.

“The Canadian government still refuses to consider market harm when they decide to approve GM crops. This obviously has to change immediately,” said Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, in the NFU’s release. “The entire regulatory system needs urgent reform or we will see even more widespread market chaos.”

CDC Triffid (which shares its name with a star-forming nebula in deep space and a venomous mutant plant from a 1951 British science fiction novel and 1962 film, The Day of the Triffids) was bred at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre for tolerance to soil residues of sulfonylurea herbicides.

Such residues have been known to cause damage to conventional (non-GM) flax and keep the crop out of rotation for years on sulfonylurea-treated fields.