Canada’s flax exports to the European Union won’t return to normal any time soon because the tolerance for genetically modified (GM) CDC Triffid flax is too low, exporters say.
Their fears seem even more justified since the Canadian Commission (CGC) has concluded “that FP967 (CDC Triffid) is present throughout the Canadian flaxseed crop at low levels across all Prairie provinces.”
The CGC found CDC Triffid in 11 of 119 composite flax samples from terminal and transfer elevators, vessels and 941 rail cars from 63 elevators from the three Prairie provinces, said CGC spokesman Remi Gosselin in an interview.
“From the CGC’s perspective we understand that preliminary results still suggest that there is FP967 that is throughout the flaxseed crop at low levels across all three Prairie provinces,” he said. “There is no indication of a specific hot spot in Western Canada.”
That’s troublesome for several reasons. It means clearing CDC Triffid from the grain-handling system will be more difficult than had the contamination been traced to just a couple of highly concentrated sources.
Farmers will likely have to grow certified flaxseed and even test it to assure flax buyers of its purity. But they’ll be reluctant to grow flax at all until prices recover. And flax prices aren’t likely to recover until exports resume to the EU.
What’s happened also raises questions about how seed growers handled pedigreed CDC Triffid seed. It was recalled in 2001 after the flax industry concluded commercialization threatened exports to the EU. It appears CDC Triffid
seed was widely distributed even though it was assumed all the seed was pulled off the market.
Canadian flax exports to the EU have been on hold since summer after the EU discovered some shipments contained CDC Triffid, which was approved in Canada, but not in the EU.
In November, Canada and the EU agreed to a protocol designed to allow Canadian flax exports to resume, including a 0.01 per cent limit on CDC Triffid in those shipments.
The CGC will sample and test flax for CDC Triffid as it’s railed to export and after it’s loaded on ships.
RISK TOO HIGH
Grain buyers also want farmers to test their flax for CDC Triffid before they deliver it.
But despite the effort, exporters say the risk is still too high.
“We don’t see it (protocol) as being a viable option,” Jean-Marc Ruest, Richardson International’s vice-president of corporate affairs and general counsel, said in an interview Dec. 16.
“I think at best it’s (protocol) a tool to help you… somehow ship volumes of grain that you’ve already got in stock, but the conclusion we’ve reached is it is not a feasible tool to carry on business in the future and put new business on the books,” Ruest said.
Richard Wansbutter, Viterra’s vice-president of government and commercial relations, agrees.
“At a 0.01 (per cent) tolerance it is extremely, extremely tight,” Wansbutter said. “We are finding at that level it is going to be difficult to meet the protocol terms.”
Increasing the tolerance tenfold to 0.1 per cent would help, but companies would have to assess if even that would work, Ruest said.
Canada exports 500,000 to 700,000 tonnes of flax to the EU annually, which accounts for 50 to 70 per cent of Canada’s flax exports.
“I think it would be extremely unrealistic to expect that we would come close to that under this protocol,” Wansbutter said. “It’s just not possible.”
HIGHER TOLERANCES SOUGHT
Ruest and Wansbutter hope Canada and the EU will negotiate a higher tolerance for GM flax.
“We’re going to endeavour to try and make the protocol work,” Gosselin said. “If it means revisiting it, that’s certainly an option that can be considered. Governments and the CGC certainly want to get these flaxseed shipments going again and we are going to continue to partner with industry to make this work.”
The ball is now in the EU’s court, Ruest said.
“The European industry and consumers will have to decide what’s important for them,” he said. “If anything above 0.01 per cent is unacceptable to them then they can’t expect to be receiving Canadian flax in the future on a regular basis because… it poses a great risk for us and it’s not something we’re likely to want to carry in the future.”
It also underscores the need for importing countries to set reasonable limits on traces of GM crops approved by exporting nations, Wansbutter said.
A shipment of Canadian flax recently loaded in Thunder Bay is destined for the EU, a CGC official said, but neither Wansbutter nor Ruest would say if their company was doing the business.
NO MORE BIN-RUN SEED
Flax Council of Canada president Barry Hall said a higher tolerance for GM flax would help restore exports “but what the chances of that are is difficult to say.”
Meanwhile, Canadian flax exports to countries that have no GM flax restrictions are close to a standstill, Hall said.
Hall has stressed farmers shouldn’t fear penalties if their flax is contaminated with CDC Triffid. The industry wants to identify GM-contaminated flax so it can be segregated and cleared from the system, he said.
Flax growers can expect their crops will be closely scrutinized, Elwin Hermanson, the CGC’s chief commissioner told the Manitoba Agronomists’ Conference at the University of Manitoba Dec. 15.
“There will be a lot of pressure to seed certified flaxseed and not seed bin-run flax, which has been a common occurrence in the past,” he said. [email protected]