GM Flax Scare Hammers Prices

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Like a movie monster that refuses to die, CDC Triffid, a genetically modified (GM) Canadian flax deregistered in 2001, has surfaced in Germany, European Union (EU) officials believe.

And flax prices have plummeted, just as farmers feared they might when they lobbied to have the variety voluntarily pulled from the market. Although the Canadian Food Inspectional Agency (CFIA) declared CDC Triffid safe, the EU has not yet approved GM flax.

Earlier this summer, the EU found the genetic marker NPTII in two cargoes of Canadian flax, indicating it had been genetically modified.

Barry Hall, president of the Flax Council of Canada, says it’s hard to fathom how CDC Triffid, which was never commercialized, could be showing up now. As of last week officials were waiting for tests to confirm Triffid was present in the EU shipments, but a reliable source said signs are pointing in that direction.

The CGC’s Grain Research Laboratory has already found the NPTII marker in a sample of flax exported to the EU, CGC spokesman Remi Gosselin said.

Ironically, CDC Triffid, which was developed to tolerate carryover sulfonylurea herbicide (such as Glean) residues in soil, shares its name with genetically altered, venomous, three-legged plants that wreak havoc in the 1951 science fiction novel, “Day of the Triffids.”

The EU has so far not blocked imports of Canadian flax or requested all imports be tested, both of which are future possibilities, but EU officials have raised the matter with Canadian trade officials.

“This it is creating havoc,” Hall said in an interview. “Companies have lowered prices in the country or are even withdrawing offers. It’s sending quite a shock wave in the country.”

TRACKING GROWERS

If it is CDC Triffid, every possibility as to how it got into the grain handling system will be explored, Hall said. The Canadian Seeds Growers’ Association has a record of every grower who produced CDC Triffid seed, how much they produced and where.

Pedigreed CDC Triffid seed was thought to have been purchased from seed growers and processed years ago, said Michael Scheffel, the CFIA’s seed section national manager.

Of all the crops, flax is the one farmers most often produce from farm-saved seed, Hall said. Flax is also a crop farmers sometimes hold a long time hoping to get better prices.

Unlike canola, flax doesn’t out-cross easily, nor it is a competitive volunteer.

The least likely explanation is that CDC Triffid was used as a parent when developing new flax varieties.

“There’s no way that could’ve happened,” said Dorothy Murrell, managing director of the Crop Development Centre.

An official with CFIA said that despite safeguards, nothing is impossible.

SAMPLES

Alan McHughen, who developed CDC Triffid, gave away small packets of the seed early in the decade – a move criticized by the flax industry at the time. But industry officials find it hard to believe that could have resulted in quantities large enough to affect exports.

“If there is any Triffid seed out there it would be in minuscule quantities,” McHughen, a plant biotechnologist at University of California, Riverside, said in an interview last week. “I can’t believe any farmer in Western Canada would be growing it intentionally anyway, first of all because they are all aware of the sensitivity to growing GM flax… and secondly there are newer varieties out there that make Triffid obsolete.”

McHughen said the EU can’t say for sure it has found CDC Triffid because there are other GM flax genotypes (none grown commercially) and the EU doesn’t have information on them, he said.

“If it turns out to be Triffid, fine, but I would be very surprised,” McHughen added. [email protected]

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