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Saved Flax OK If It Tests GM Free

The flax industry has reversed an earlier decision requiring farmers to sow only certified seed this year after finding contamination by the genetically modified CDC Triffid in more cultivars.

Prairie flax growers can continue sowing farm-saved seed provided it tests negative for traces of genetically modified (GM) CDC Triffid, flax growers were told at a meeting last week. Although certified seed is still preferred, it too will have to be tested to ensure it is Triffid free.

While many farmers will welcome the policy change announced by the Flax Council of Canada (FCC) March 4, they won’t be pleased with what prompted it.

Small amounts of Triffid have been found in the breeder seed of three more flax cultivars from the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre, including CDC Bethune, the most widely grown flax across the West, as well as CDC Sorrell and a new variety, CDC

Sanctuary, which is not yet commercially available.

Traces of Triffid were found earlier in CDC Normandy and CDC Mons breeder seed, both of which were also developed by the Crop Development Centre. Breeder seed is multiplied by seed growers and eventually sold to farmers as certified, which means it’s 99.5 per cent pure.

WILL TAKE LONGER

This latest news means removing CDC Triffid from Canadian flax and resuming exports to the EU will take longer than first hoped.

“As you can imagine this is not good news,” FCC president Barry Hall told reporters.

Traditionally, 75 per cent of the flax sown in the West is farm-saved. The FCC was insisting this spring farmers plant certified seed that tested Triffid free, believing it would help eradicate Triffid from the system faster and send a strong message to EU flax buyers.

But with Triffid contamination found in breeder seed – albeit at levels much lower than 0.01 per cent – it’s likely in some certified seed too, therefore the FCC felt it couldn’t force farmers to plant it, Hall said.

The Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission had argued forcing farmers to grow certified seed could contaminate farms that were Triffid free, Hall said.

“The trade did not change their position on this easily but… they felt it was the best way to move forward with it,” he said.

“It’s not that all the certified seed is going to fail, it’s just at this point we don’t know the extent of it and we won’t know until we get a week or two more into it.”

TRACES FOUND

In the meantime, seeding is just weeks away.

Of the 125 or so certified seed samples tested so far, less than 20 per cent has traces of Triffid, Hall said.

“This is like a hit below the belt,” Garvin Kabernick, a Sanfordarea farmer and past president of the Manitoba Flax Growers Association said in an interview after the association’s annual meeting last week.

The bad news began last summer when the EU, which has zero tolerance for GM flax, detected traces of Triffid in imports of Canadian flax.

Triffid, developed by the Crop Development Centre, in the mid-1990s, was genetically modified using a gene from a type of mustard plant to tolerate soil residues from Group 2 herbicides. It was approved in Canada and the United States, but deregistered in 2001 over fears it would interfere with sales to EU, which accounts for 60 to 70 per cent of Canadian flax exports.

At first Canadian officials thought the problem might be canola dockage in flax.

Then it was assumed either a bin of old seed had been cleaned out, or perhaps a few seed growers or farmers were growing Triffid. But that doesn’t appear to be the case after testing revealed the contamination is at low levels and widespread.

“It’s all pointing to CDC (Crop Development Centre),” Kabernick said. “They didn’t clean up their fields or their equipment or their plots or something well enough and a small amount of it (Triffid) got in there. It’s their varieties that are causing the problem.”

STEPPED UP TESTING

So far, the breeder seed of flax cultivars developed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada are clean, Kabernick said. But he’s worried that might not last because Agriculture Canada has been crossbreeding with CDC varieties.

The Crop Development Centre has stepped up its testing and will do all it can to prevent variety contamination in the future, Dorothy Murrell, the centre’s managing director, said in an interview last week.

“We’ll do more rigorous testing for sure and more regular testing at certain points in the program and just be very diligent and aware,” she said.

“We believe that diligence and testing protocols will move us to a point where it (Triffid trait) won’t be detectable. That’s our goal.”

Murrell stressed the levels of contamination are very low – the equivalent of one seed in out of one or two million. As a result, no purity regulations were broken “but because of the sensitivity in our main marketplace we are taking that very seriously,” she said.

The centre has also not determined whether the contamination is from the odd Triffid seed mixed with other seeds or whether Triffid DNA has been transferred into the seeds of other varieties. The latter has implications for future cultivar development.

Kabernick supported planting certified flaxseed and still does. It costs more than farm saved, but usually higher yields cover it and more, he said.

Even though only Triffid-free seed is to be planted this spring, buyers will continue to test flax as it moves through the system. Given the EU will reject anything with 0.01 per cent Triffid or more, it’s unlikely Canadian flax exporters will be shipping to the EU anytime soon, an official with Richardson International told farmers attending the Manitoba Flax Growers Association annual meeting last week (See story page 17). [email protected]

About the author

Reporter

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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