U Of A’s GM flax raises eyebrows

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“Now EU buyers of confectionery, or food flax, require their contracts to state: Canadian flax 100 per cent excluded. As a promoter and marketer of Canadian grain that really hurts.”


Canada’s flax industry is nervously eyeing ongoing research at the University of Alberta aimed at developing a genetically modified flax with a different oil profile.

The industry is still reeling from CDC Triffid, a GM flax, which cost Canada its European Union (EU) market, and is wondering what impact the University of Alberta’s flax will have.

“I have to be careful because I support biotechnology,” Terry James, the Flax Council of Canada’s chair and vice-president of export marketing for Richardson International told the Canada Grains Council’s annual meeting in Winnipeg April 19. “Having been a marketer that has faced the problems we’ve had in the last nine months with Triffid and the fallout that it has created in Europe… it’s a total debacle, I have to wonder if this is going to be of value.”

So far work on the flax has been confined to laboratories. But field trials could start this year, he said.

“Obviously there are going to have to be some questions asked about what’s going on in Alberta,” he added.


The University of Alberta recently notified the flax council by letter about its work, James said later in an interview. The council hasn’t decided how to respond and wants more feedback from council members.

“The Europeans were a bit surprised, the grain handlers were a little bit surprised,” James said.

James described it as “the perfect storm – our worst nightmare.”

Testing has revealed around nine per cent of Western Canada’s flax contains some trace of CDC Triffid, which is not approved in the EU, although in most cases below the EU’s threshold 0.01 per cent.

The exact source of the contamination hasn’t been determined. CDC Triffid was deregistered in 2001 and its pedigreed seed pulled from the market before it was commercialized.

It’s suspected at least some of the contamination came from the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre where Triffid, was developed. Triffid has been found in breeder seed for other flax cultivars developed by the centre.

A test requested by German baker was the first to find Triffid in Canadian flax, James said.

“The (EU) marketplace was totally freaked out by the word GMO and welcomed laboratories using modern and sensitive analytical tools,” he said. “As more positive results surfaced turmoil followed. More rapid alerts (food warnings) were issued, product recalls occurred, cargoes were rejected and all this started to happen very quickly.”

Burned in parking lots

Food containing Canadian flax was pulled from grocery stores and burned in the parking, lots, said grains council administrator Dennis Stephens.

“For several days running it was the lead story on the national television network (in Germany),” Stephens said as he delivered a presentation by absent Detlef Volz, managing director of the German flax crusher C. Thywissen GmbH.

Politicians from all parties were demanding action, he added.

“Now EU buyers of confectionery, or food flax, require their contracts to state: Canadian flax 100 per cent excluded,” James said. “As a promoter and marketer of Canadian grain that really hurts.”

According to James, Canadian flax can’t even be used to make linoleum, ink or cigarette paper.

“It will be hard to get it (food market) back because we have to guarantee non-GMO and that’s going to be very difficult,” James said in an interview. “But we might be able to get it back if we can get this low level presence policy in place.”

Meanwhile, EU flax crushers, which are mainly family operations, are suffering.

“This issue can indeed kill companies and many are on the brink of bankruptcy today,” Stephens said on behalf of Volz.

“Where he went wrong was in placing confidence in the Canadian system.”


With the benefit of hindsight Canada could have done better by recognizing the problem sooner and “moving out of what I would say was a state of denial,” Stephens said.

Stephens said Volz is complimentary of Canada’s actions since, including its efforts to remove GM flax from its exports.

Farmers are supposed to only plant flax seed this spring that tested negative for Triffid and they’ll be asked for certificates showing the flax they deliver this fall is also Triffid-free.

However, James is still worried given the low tolerances.

Richardson International has 7,000 tonnes of flax stuck in EU silos. Before the EU will allow the flax to be shipped elsewhere the receiving country must agree in writing.

Stuck in silos

The flax can be shipped back to Canada but it will be considered foreign grain and therefore ineligible for a Canadian Grain Commission grade or a phytosanitary certificate.

Meanwhile, Canadian flax exports to China have increased and Chinese flax exports to the EU are up, James said.

“Are there backdoor trades going on? Probably.”

Canadian flax exports to the United States are up 25 per cent, while U.S. flax exports to the EU are up 81 per cent. U.S. flax oil exports to the EU are up 70 per cent.

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