Flax growers await data on GM flax findings

Canada’s flax producers are waiting to see hard proof that a long-deregistered, never-commercialized, genetically-modified flax variety somehow made it into a food processing plant in Germany.

The European Commission’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) on Sept. 8 got notification from Germany that flax variety FP967, otherwise known as CDC Triffid, was found by an unnamed company during a check of its cereal and bakery products.

“To date, we have not seen any laboratory results that would prove this to be the case,” the Flax Council of Canada said in a release Friday. “We are working with the Canadian European mission in Brussels to determine what prompted this (the RASFF) action.”

The council confirmed that European labs have been testing Canadian flax and initial analytical results indicate, “in some samples,” the presence of NPTII, a genetic marker common to many GM crops.

Some of those labs, the council said, are now stating that this indicates the presence of Triffid, which was Canada’s first and last genetically-modified (GM) flax variety and is not approved for production in Canada.

Emphasizing that it “considers the possibility of genetically modified flax to be a very serious issue,” the council said it will work with the Plant Biotechnology Institute in Saskatoon and the Canadian Grain Commission’s Grain Research Laboratory to establish “a proper protocol that will conclusively determine if Canadian flax contains CDC Triffid.”

DNA testing is “extremely sensitive,” the council noted, and technology has improved considerably in recent years. Thus a testing protocol has to be “carefully developed to ensure accurate and reliable results.”

“Assume the liability”

Observers have said such a discovery in the GM-shy European Union, which usually buys about two-thirds of Canada’s flax production, could spell trouble for Canadian flax exports at an already-inopportune time, when carryover stocks are high and above-average production is expected from the 2009-10 harvest.

Groups known for their opposition to GM crops are already characterizing the German report as a major contamination incident which shows GMOs can’t be controlled or recalled once released in the environment.

The New Brunswick-based Canadian wing of the U.S.-based Organic Trade Association issued a statement Friday saying “it’s time for biotech companies to be good parents and take responsibility for their children.”

Specifically, OTA managing director Matthew Holmes said, “the owners of (GM) crops need to assume the liability for loss of market access due to their technologies appearing in countries or products in which they are not wanted.”

As organic standards don’t permit GM organisms, Canada’s organic sector is “extremely concerned by the prospect of losing access to its essential markets in Europe, Asia and around the world,” he said.

CDC Triffid 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 flax and keep the crop out of rotation for years on sulfonylurea-treated fields.

Triffid had picked up regulatory approval for release in 1998, but was deregistered by 2001 without ever having been commercialized.

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