CdC Triffid Flax Scare Threatens Access To No. 1 EU Market

Like a movie monster that refuses to die, CDC Triffid, a genetically modified (GM) Canadian flax deregistered in 2001, has surfaced in Germany, European Union (EU) officials believe.

And flax prices have plummeted just as farmers feared they might when they lobbied to have the variety voluntarily pulled from the market. Although the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) declared CDC Triffid safe, the EU has not yet approved GM flax.

Earlier this summer, the EU found the genetic marker NPTII in two cargoes of Canadian flax, indicating it had been genetically modified.

Barry Hall, president of the Flax Council of Canada says it’s hard to fathom how CDC Triffid, which was never commercialized, could be showing up now. As of last week, Hall said he hasn’t seen any laboratory results proving the flax in question is CDC Triffid. But a reliable source said signs are pointing in that direction.


The CFIA has a sample of CDC Triffid in storage. Later this week the CFIA and Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) hope to identify the flax in question through their own testing.


The CGC’s Grain Research Laboratory has already found the NPTII marker in a sample of flax exported to the EU, CGC spokesman Remi Gosselin said.

Ironically, CDC Triffid, which was developed to tolerate carry-over sulfonylurea herbicide (such as Glean) residues in soil, shares its name with genetically altered, venomous, three-legged plants that wreak havoc in the 1951 science fiction novel, “Day of the Triffids.’

The EU has so far not blocked imports of Canadian flax or requested all imports be tested, both of which are future possibilities, but EU officials have raised the matter with Canadian trade officials.

“This is creating havoc,” Hall said in an interview. “Companies have lowered prices in the country or are even withdrawing offers. It’s sending quite a shock wave in the country.”


If it is CDC Triffid, every possibility as to how it got into the grain-handling system will be explored, Hall said. The Canadian Seed Growers’ Association has a record of every grower who produced CDC Triffid seed, how much they produced and where.

Pedigreed CDC Triffid seed

“This is creating havoc.”

– barry hall

was thought to have been purchased from seed growers and processed years ago, said Michael Scheffel, the CFIA’s seed section national manager.

Of all the crops, flax is the one farmers most often produce from farm-saved seed, Hall said. Flax is also a crop farmers sometimes hold a long time hoping to get better prices.

Unlike canola, flax doesn’t outcross easily, nor is it a competitive volunteer.

The least likely explanation is that CDC Triffid was used as a parent when developing new flax varieties.

“There’s no way that could’ve happened,” said Dorothy Murrell, managing director of the Crop Development Centre.

An official with CFIA said despite safeguards, nothing is impossible.


Alan McHughen, who developed CDC Triffid, gave away small packets of the seed early in the decade – a move criticized by the flax industry at the time. But industry officials find it hard to believe that could have resulted in quantities large enough to affect exports.

“If there is any Triffid seed out there it would be in minuscule quantities,” McHughen, a plant biotechnologist at University of California, Riverside, said in an interview last week. “I can’t believe any farmer in Western Canada would be growing it intentionally anyway, first of all because they are all aware of the sensitivity to growing GM flax… and secondly there are newer varieties out there that make Triffid obsolete.”

McHughen said the EU can’t say for sure it has found CDC Triffid because there are other GM flax genotypes (none grown commercially) and the EU doesn’t have information on them, he said.

“If it turns out to be Triffid, fine, but I would be very surprised,” McHughen added.


Garvin Kabernick, a Sanfordarea farmer and president of the Manitoba Flax Growers Association, said there’s no good time for flax prices to drop, but it’s especially disappointing at harvest time.

National Farmers Union vicepresident Terry Boehm said the best news would be that the flax was contaminated by GM canola. If it is CDC Triffid, access to Canada’s biggest flax customer is in peril.

“This is an absolute nightmare for flax growers and why we worked so hard to have the GM flax removed,” he said.

The Organic Trade Association said in a release biotechnology companies should be held responsible for the damage their products cause to markets. [email protected]

About the author


Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.



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