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Just Why Is That Flax Variety Named Triffid?

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If you grow flax, you are no doubt aware of the nightmarish plunge in prices due to the apparent discovery of prohibited genetically modified material – probably the variety Triffid – in shipments to Europe.

However, this is not the first time Triffid has caused nightmares. Many of us on this side of the Atlantic are not familiar with the John Wyndham science-fiction novel The Day of the Triffids, but if you live in the U.K., you’ve either read it, seen the movie or heard the BBC serialized radio version, which has given a couple of generations of Brits sleepless nights, or nightmares if they did fall asleep after hearing it. You can read the full plot summary on Wikipedia, but here’s the introduction.

The protagonist is Bill Masen, an Englishman who has made his living working with “Triffids,” plants capable of aggressive and seemingly intelligent behaviour: they are able to move about on their three “legs,” appear to communicate with each other and possess a deadly whip-like poisonous sting that enables them to kill and feed on the rotting carcasses of their victims. The book implies they were bioengineered in the Soviet Union and then accidentally released into the wild when a plane carrying their seeds is shot down. Triffids begin sprouting all over the world, and their extracts prove to be superior to existing vegetable oils. The result is worldwide cultivation of Triffids.

And for a seven-minute audio version, check out this “Digested Read” at www.guardian.co.uk/books/audio/2009/may/26/john-wyndham-day-of-the-triffids.

Plant breeders get to choose the names of their varieties. Triffid was named by Alan McHughen, formerly a breeder at the Crop Development Centre in Saskatoon.

McHughen, who passed out free samples of Triffid after the industry decided to pull it from the marketplace for fear of endangering the European market, is now working as a biotechnologist in California.

Perhaps he was being ironic, and the fiasco over the discovery of genetically modified flax in shipments to the EU probably would have happened no matter what the variety had been named.

However, this name may not help any. If there are any canola breeders out there who are looking for a name for a variety for the Japanese market, please don’t name it Godzilla.

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