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Canadian Farmers Frustrated Over Flax Issue

Western Canadian farmers taking part in a conference call Feb. 1, to discuss the state of the flaxseed industry, expressed concern over some of the plans offered by the market representatives to deal with the trace amounts of genetically modified material that has been found in flaxseed samples across the country.

The requirement that producers grow only certified seed in 2010 was a major topic of the discussion.

The call was organized by the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission as an opportunity to update farmers on the current situation and provide a forum for questions. Barry Hall of the Flax Council of Canada, flax merchant Quentin Stewart of Viterra, and a spokesperson from one of the labs conducting GM tests were also on hand to answer questions. A second call will be held February 2.

The European Union, Canada’s largest traditional customer for flaxseed, stopped importing the commodity in September following the discovery of GM material in some shipments. The GM material comes from a variety called CDC Triffid which was deregistered in 2001. While the crop was never in commercial production, subsequent testing has found trace amounts of Triffid in samples from across the country. The EU has a very small tolerance level for GM flax which is set at 0.01 per cent, or one in every 10,000 seeds.

A protocol for testing, sampling and documenting Canadian flaxseed, developed in conjunction with the EU, was implemented in October 2009. All flaxseed destined for the European market must now undergo rigorous testing. While not a part of the protocol, the Canadian flaxseed industry is also requiring that all flax planted in 2010 be grown from certified seed if it is to be sold to Europe. Other smaller markets, including Japan and Brazil, are also requiring testing protocols on Canadian flax.

Many of the farmers on the conference call questioned the need for certified seed if their own farm-saved seed tested negative for Triffid, especially as the certified seed will come at a higher price and supplies may be limited.

Farmers also questioned whether or not a move to certified seed would actually solve the Triffid problem, as the genetic marker has shown up in samples of flaxseed grown from certified seed in 2009. Another concern was that the certified seed requirement would become permanent, with some producers indicating that the need for certified seed would dissuade them from planting the crop.

“The industry has unanimously put forward a policy where they will ask that all seed put into the ground for the 2010 crop year be certified and be extensively tested,” said Barry Hall, president of the Flax Council of Canada. He said the rationale for that move was that seed provided by certified growers can be more closely monitored.

“At the end of the day, it really comes down to what the Europeans will accept,” said David Sefton, a director with the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission.

He added that “the cleaner we can get the seed, with the least likelihood of further Triffid contamination, the quicker we’ll get the doors reopened in a more sustainable commercial fashion.”

Quentin Stewart, of Viterra, said the calls for certified seed this year will not be an indefinite move. “This is being done solely to try and rid the marketplace of Triffid, and more specifically to ensure that nothing going into the ground does in fact contain Triffid, so we can begin to weed this out as we go forward.”

As for those producers holding flaxseed supplies that have tested positive for Triffid, Stewart said the grain companies were making every effort possible to find a market for it. “If a producer does in fact have stock that contains Triffid, please do not panic in any capacity. We will take it. We will find a home for it,” said Stewart. He added that industry was working to keep the price spread between GM-free flaxseed and supplies that have tested positive for Triffid as narrow as possible.

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Phil Franz-Warkentin - MarketsFarm

Phil Franz-Warkentin writes for MarketsFarm specializing in grain and commodity market reporting.

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