CANADA: Attack of the Triffids has flax farmers baffled
Posted: October 28th, 2009 - 11:03am
Source: Globe and Mail
In the waning days of fall, prairie flaxseed farmers should be hopping onto their tractors and harvesting their crops of the trendy health food, but instead they're in the midst of a major whodunit, with echoes of a long-forgotten movie thriller.
Somebody has contaminated Canada's flax crop with trace amounts of a genetically modified variety, whimsically called Triffid after a 1960s horror flick that starred a villainous breed of plants replete with legs, intelligence and a venom-filled stinger.
To keep the Triffids at bay, Europe, which is hypersensitive to all things genetically modified, has slammed the doors on further imports of flaxseed from Canada, threatening a lucrative $320-million annual market for farmers. Already prices for flax have plunged by $2 to $3 a bushel from around $11 before reports of the contamination.
Farmers are mystified about why the Triffids are showing up now. The seeds, developed at the University of Saskatchewan in the 1990s, were never sold commercially in Canada and were all supposed to have been destroyed in 2001. But seeds derived from the university's plant engineering program are being found all over Europe.
Since early September, confectionery companies there have been yanking pastries and other baked goods containing flax from their shelves, blaming imports from Canada for the contamination. The genetically modified seeds have been found in 34 countries, according to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.
The strange turn of events has prompted head scratching all around.
The developer of the seeds, Alan McHughen, now a biotechnologist at the University of California, Riverside, said he has no idea why flax plants he created years ago are now contaminating the Canadian crop. Dr. McHughen did prompt controversy by giving away packets of the seeds free of charge for what he calls “educational purposes.” A condition of accepting his Triffids was to agree not to grow them, but he concedes some farmers might have thrown the seeds into their hoppers and planted them anyway. “I can't rule out that possibility,” he said.
He called them Triffids because he wanted a catchy, easy-to-spell name that farmers would remember. The name was “a bit of black humour that Dr. McHughen threw into the mix. … I'm sure he thought that he was being quite clever, but he's alone in that regard,” said Barry Hall, president of the Flax Council of Canada, the Winnipeg-based industry trade group.
Terry Boehm, a flax grower near Saskatoon and one of the approximately 15,000 prairie farmers who produce the crop, is worried about the fallout from the food scare. The cause of the contamination is “the $300-million question,” he said, adding: “I really can't hazard to say how it's there, but there's a huge amount of questions that need to be answered in regard to that.”