Flax sector slowly recovers from Day of the Triffids

Canada’s flaxseed industry continues to make progress eliminating traces of genetically modified Triffid seed from the country’s crop, but there is still work to be done given Europe’s very tight allowances for the gene.

Triffid, a genetically modified flaxseed variety, was bred in Saskatchewan in the 1990s for tolerance to soil residues of sulfonylurea herbicides, but was deregistered in 2001 and never commercialized.

Traces, however, found in Canadian shipments to Europe in 2009, effectively shutting the door to what had been the largest market for Canadian exports.

In the aftermath of the original discovery, testing protocols were put in place in an effort to eliminate Triffid from Canada’s flaxseed crop and reopen export markets.

"We have seen the incidence of Triffid go down," said Will Hill, president of the Flax Council of Canada.

Currently, about two per cent of all samples were showing traces of Triffid, which compares with 10 per cent when testing first began with the 2009-10 crop, said Hill.

Of those samples testing positive now, the intensity of contamination is also much smaller than in 2009, with the overall amount of Triffid in the tests that are positive very close to the 0.01 per cent detection level called for by the European Union.

In order to see the food market reopen in Europe, the percentage of samples testing positive for Triffid will need to decline further still or changes to the protocol itself will need to be made, said Hill.

There is now a 0.01 per cent allowance for Triffid, but if that allowance were 0.1 per cent, Hill estimated there wouldn’t be any samples testing positive at all.

"We’re making progress, but the question is ‘Can we make enough progress for shipping to go back to the way it was before Triffid?’" he said.

At 0.01 per cent, it is very hard to get consistent results, with multiple tests of the same sample sometimes getting a positive result, and sometimes not. Efforts between Canada and the European Union were still underway in an attempt to establish a more trade-friendly testing routine, he said.

Allowances closer to 0.1 per cent would also make it easier for Canada to consistently ship to the EU without fear of an unexpected positive result.

Healthy attributes

In the meantime, Canada is sending more flaxseed to the U.S. and China, said Hill. In China the demand is largely on the industrial side, but Canada is also working on developing markets for flaxseed for human consumption.

Canada in 2011-12 exported a total of 256,800 tonnes of flaxseed, with less than seven per cent of that destined for Europe, according to Canadian Grain Commission data.

In 2008-09, the last full crop year before the Triffid issue came to the forefront, Canada exported 530,200 tonnes of flaxseed, with European business accounting for about 80 per cent of the total.

Canadian farmers grew 518,200 tonnes of flaxseed in 2012, according to the latest production report from Statistics Canada. That compares with the 930,000 tonnes grown in 2009 prior to the Triffid issue.

Seeded area of about one million acres in 2012 was up from the 695,000 acres seeded in 2011, but still well off the 1.7 million planted in 2009.

Given the increasing demand internationally for the healthy attributes of flax, Hill said the industry could sustain acres of 2.5 million to three million if the European situation were to sort itself out.

Spot bids for flaxseed in Western Canada can currently be found in the $14 to $14.24 per bushel area, which compares with canola bids that are a little softer, according to the latest Prairie Ag Hotwire data.

As long as flaxseed bids were in line with canola, Hill said, the crop should be seen as a good option for farmers seeking to plant an alternative oilseed.

– Phil Franz-Warkentin writes for Commodity News Service Canada, a Winnipeg company specializing in grain and commodity market reporting.

Related stories:
Deregistered Canadian GM flax pops up in Europe, Sept. 10, 2009
Flax council reminds to test for Triffid, March 25, 2011