The Triffid Flax Story: growers’ perspective (plus more)

Over the past couple of years, I have been working with the TUFGEN group (Total Utilization of Flax Genomics) at the University of Saskatchewan.  As the social scientist on the team, I was tasked with (among other things) exploring the Triffid issue that came up in 2009. So, I joined forces with the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission and together we hosted a focus group, administered a flax grower survey and conducted one-on-one interviews with industry stakeholders.  We were able to, in almost real-time, document the Triffid issue from 2009 up until present. Our findings have been published in an article in the AgBioForum journal. A background to the story and a summary of our findings are outlined below.

Background: Triffid flax was developed in the late 1980s at the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan and was designed to thrive in soil containing residues from sulfonylurea-type herbices (good weed control option).  It received both feed and food regulatory approval in Canada and the US by the late 1990s.  However, negative consumer response to genetic modified crops in the EU (major flax export market) forced the Canadian flax industry to make a tough decision.  Triffid was voluntarily removed from the market. In fact, it was never even commercially grown.  Done deal, right? Nope. In 2009, Triffid flax was discovered in baking products in the EU food chain.  As you can imagine, this threw the Canadian industry into a whirlwind… “A winter of discontent turned into the perfect storm of all that can go wrong…”

Findings:

1. Wide spread low-level presence of Triffid flax across the Canadian growing belt is likely multifaceted and due to a) persistence of the variety (in fields where growers did not rotate for three years and in seed mixing/movement by equipment) and in the b) dispersal of the variety (flax seed ‘sticks’ when wet or dry).

2. Exports of flax into the EU food market (Canada’s major export market for flax) has NOT resumed but Canada is meeting exports there for industrial use.  Russia and the Ukraine have stepped up production and are filling the gaps in the EU food market.

3. Although prices have recovered to some degree and a certain amount of complacency has settled in, the Triffid situation has left some flax growers very frustrated. Particularly with the costs associated with ongoing testing (which continues according to the agreement between Canada and the EU).

4. Costs to the Canadian industry, although difficult to estimate, total CDN $30 Million. This includes demurrage, testing, segregation and other costs. The EU industry sustained ~ CDN $50 million.

This story is documented (yes, ‘academically’ in journal format – but not too difficult of a read) in pdf format here (Ryan and Smyth Triffid 2012).  A link to the article in the online journal AgBioForum (“Economic Implications of Low-level Presence in a Zero-Tolerance European Import Market: The Case of Canadian Triffid Flax” Ryan and Smyth) is here: http://www.agbioforum.org/v15n1/v15n1a03-ryan.htm. We worked with the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission and with the other industry organizations to pull this story together.  A huge component of our work revolved around a ‘farmer survey’. The article includes very passionate quotes from Canadian farmers.

I would love to hear your comments! This represents an interesting turn in Canada’s agricultural history.  I was happy to be part of the team effort to get this story out!

Slide presentation on this work available on the SaskFlax website: http://www.saskflax.com/PDFs/2012/10_2012_CamiRyan.pdf

– – – –

We (Stuart Smyth and I) are grateful for the support of The Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission, Flax Council of Canada, our colleagues at TUFGEN and in the Department of Bioresource Policy, Business and Economics at the U of S and the Canadian Agricultural Adaption Program (CAAP) and Agricultural Council of Saskatchewan, Inc. for funding.

One thought on “The Triffid Flax Story: growers’ perspective (plus more)

  1. I’m a Saskatchewan flax grower who has obviously been impacted by this.

    While it’s a shame that the Triffid contamination occurred, the reaction to it by the European Union continues to annoy me. For one thing, the levels of Triffid detected were extremely low; and, for another thing, there is no scientific basis to support the EU’s fear of GMO contamination.

    Canadian producers are being forced to pay a price for the irrational fear-mongering among the European public.

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