New flax variety sparks debate

It is not transgenic, but some fear glyphosate-resistant flax will produce a second Day of the Triffids

Some Manitoba flax growers are expressing concern after learning a glyphosate-resistant flax variety is only a few years away from being market ready.

Eric Fridfinnson of the Manitoba Flax Growers Association said the move towards herbicide-tolerant flax began several years ago and stemmed from a desire to increase yields, which hover around 22 bushels per acre in Manitoba.

“We really feel that it would be a great benefit to flax to be able to use this technology,” said Fridfinnson. “We see a number of areas where it would be useful for breeders to be able to move their program more quickly and raise the genetic potential of flax.”

In the spring of 2010, the Flax Council of Canada signed on with U.S. crop trait development firm Cibus to work on non-transgenic flax traits, providing significant funding for the company’s work. The Manitoba Flax Growers Association also contributed to the project, providing approximately $200,000 to the San Diego-based company over about four years.

But after Cibus failed to meet various milestones, the council ended its arrangement with the company.

“A year and a half ago it was not meeting the goals or steps that were set,” Fridfinnson said. “We felt we had to suspend the program, but it continued to work on it after that and we still have an agreement with it and have some ownership of the process.”

According to the Cibus’s website, glyphosate-resistant flax will be launched in the U.S. in 2019 and in Canada in 2020.

Don Rourke raised the issue during Manitoba Flax Growers’ annual general meeting in Winnipeg earlier this month, which was held in conjunction with the annual Crop Connect conference.

“Personally, I don’t want it,” he said. “I don’t think resistant flax is something we need.”

Raising the spectre of CDC Triffid — a transgenic variety that saw Canadian flax shut out of the European market — the Minto-area producer said introducing a new modified crop could again risk Canada’s access to overseas markets.

Triffid flax was unfortunately named after a genetically modified outer-space creature that strikes people blind with its stinger.

Triffid flax was unfortunately named after a genetically modified outer-space creature that strikes people blind with its stinger.
photo: File

Fridfinnson was quick to point out that in the technical sense, he doesn’t believe the process used by Cibus is considered a genetic modification.

“It is not a GMO technology, it’s gene editing, it’s mutagenisis,” he said.

How the European Union defines the trait has yet to be ascertained.

“The European Union has not decided yet, whether or not it is going to consider this technology GMO or not, however, it is the direction the industry is going,” said Rachel Evans, extension agronomist for the Flax Council of Canada. “In the traditional definition of a GMO you have a new trait going into a plant, what they are calling this technology is a ‘rewriting,’ and so it is highly technical in terms of the difference, but there is a difference.”

Fridfinnson is optimistic that the public will understand the difference between the variety development techniques and accept herbicide-resistant flax.

“I hope that consumers will give it a fair hearing and look at the benefits that it could provide.”

Others were less confident.

“We’re splitting hairs,” said Rourke. “It’s still glyphosate resistant.”

In the future, Fridfinnson said the hope is that Cibus’s “Rapid Trait Development System” will allow for the development of other novel traits and new flax varieties. Glyphosate resistance was chosen as a starting point because the herbicide is well understood, widely available and inexpensive.

“In terms of glyphosate, you get 12 farmers in a room and you will get 12 different opinions,” said Paul Dribnenki, a consultant who has worked with the flax council on yield improvement strategies.

“I think glyphosate was a reasonable choice… the good thing about glyphosate right now is that the cost of glyphosate is really pretty low per acre, so it is certainly cost effective.”

But whatever happens in the future, Evans said that market access will be at the forefront of the decision-making process.

“I think I can probably speak for the flax council… to say that we are first and foremost interested in market acceptance, so we are continuing conversation with Cibus,” she said. “No one wants a repeat.”

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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