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Some Farmers Asking Who Is Liable?

Saskatchewan farmer Gordon Nodge asked the question that’s on a lot of farmers’ minds: Who’s to blame for the contamination of Canada’s flax by CDC Triffid?

“The liability for the inadvertent leak and subsequent contamination (of Canada’s non-GM flax) must lay somewhere,” said the farmer from Swift Current, Sask., during a conference call March 18 to update farmers on the Triffid situation.

“Once again producers are expected to incur and carry the costs of testing and maintaining another tier of records. The vast majority of producers are not the cause of this issue.”

Flax Council of Canada (FCC) president Barry Hall said he wasn’t in a position to “indicate where liability might lie.” Triffid was approved for release in Canada and the United States, he said.

“So just from a layman’s point of view it puts it in a whole different category.”

Seeking a culprit is a waste of resources, said Dave Sefton, a Broadview, Sask. area farmer and director of the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission.

“I think we should concentrate our time and effort on doing things that will get us back into the sale and production of the quality of flax that we’re known around the world for prior to this happening,” he said.

FINANCIAL HIT

The flax industry as a whole is taking a financial hit, he added. The cost to the flax commission for conference calls alone will exceed $100,000.

If anyone should be sued it’s the EU, said Viking, Alta., farmer and past president of the Canadian Seed Growers Association, Ed Lefsrud.

“They’re the ones at fault, not us,” he said.

Since Triffid contamination is costing farmers a lot of money,

“The liability for the inadvertent leak (of Triffid, a genetically modified flax) and subsequent contamination (of Canada’s non-GM flax) must lay somewhere.”

– GORDON NODGE

farmers have a legitimate right to ask who’s at fault, Stewart Wells, past president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), said later in an interview.

“As soon as there’s a problem the costs are socialized because the companies, or in this case the breeder (of Triffid), is nowhere to be found,” he said.

Of the 5,000 or so flax samples tested for Triffid, eight to 10 per cent have been positive. Wells said that refutes those who say the risk of contamination from itinerant GM crops is low.

That’s why the NFU supports C-474, NDP MP Alex Atamanenko’s private member’s bill to amend the Seeds Regulations to require an analysis of potential harm to export markets before the sale of any new GM seed is permitted.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture also supports sending it to a committee for further discussion.

FEDERAL BILL

The Grain Growers of Canada and the federal government don’t. Both say the change isn’t “science based.”

“What Mr. Atamanenko is proposing is an extra level of red tape that will keep new innovative varieties in approvals indefinitely,” Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said in a prepared statement.

“Our government understands that in order to be competitive, our farmers deserve timely access to the cutting-edge inputs they need.”

When traces of Triffid were first found in Canadian flax exported to the EU last summer, many assumed one or more seed growers or farmers had either cleaned out an old bin of Triffid or perhaps were growing and selling it, even though its registration was pulled in 2001 over fears its presence could disrupt flax

sales. That hypothesis looked less likely as tests revealed low levels of Triffid contamination are widespread across Western Canada.

Some farmers are now questioning the role of University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre, where Triffid was developed in the mid-1990s, as well as the role of Triffid’s developer Alan McHughen, now a plant biotechnologist at the University of California, Riverside.

Breeder seed of most flax varieties developed at the Crop Development Centre is contaminated by Triffid. The centre’s managing director, Dorothy Murrell, said trying to identify the source of the contamination would be speculative.

“We can only assume that there has been some volunteering (of Triffid) through the years since the variety ceased to be registered and removed from our production schemes here,” she said. “After breeder seed has been moved from the Crop Development Centre into the hands of seed growers there would be an additional opportunity for some admix or volunteering to occur.”

CLEANSING PROTOCOLS

Additional contamination could occur throughout the grain pipeline, she said.

Meanwhile, the centre has a protocol for cleaning up its breeder seed, Murrell said.

“So at the very early stages of the breeder seed production we will be testing single plants to make sure they’re clean and then using the progeny of those single plants to make new breeder seed lots.”

Wells questions whether Triffid developer McHughen is partly to blame. McHughen resisted the flax industry’s calls to deregister Triffid given its trade fears. And for a time McHughen was distributing small packets of Triffid seed to school kids and others, encouraging them to grow their own GM crop. [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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