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

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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.

Study on attitudes of EU farmers on GM Crop Adoption.

January 16, 2012

New study in Plant Biotechnology Journal on Attitudes of European Farmers on GM crop adoption by Areal et al (December 2011).

Excerpt:

“The willingness to adopt GMHT crops from a number of European farmers would be significantly affected by the implementation of coexistence measures, especially those that mean an economic burden for the farmer.”

For more info, see copy of article below!

Attitudes_of_EU_farmers_to_biotech_crops_December_2011.pdf
Download this file

Nature DOES produce GMOs!

GMOs and Mother Nature are closer than you think! 

McWilliams, New York Times

November 9, 2010

http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/09/gmos-and-mother-nature-closer-than-you-think/

In this article, James McWilliams reports that Swedish  researchers have discovered an enzyme-producing gene in a meadow grass that naturally crossed into sheep’s fescue almost 700,000 years ago! 

“Whether organic, conventional or biotech, the act of farming is, as the classicist-raisin farmer-writer Victor Davis Hanson once wrote, “the elemental fight with soil, water, and living organisms to produce harvests at a profit.” To divide the precious manifestation of that fight — our food supply — into “real” and “frankenfood” insults not only those who grow and produce our food, but nature itself.”

 

 

A survey of views on genetically modified (GM) crops shows that 80 per cent of Indian farmers are unwilling to use GM seeds to grow food.

Farmers prefer to use GM seeds for cash crops, survey finds

T. V. Padma

9 April 2010
SciDev

“India’s first survey of farmers’ and consumers’ views on genetically modified (GM) crops indicates farmers are more willing to use GM seeds for cash crops rather than food crops…The findings, released last week (1 April), revealed that around 40 per cent of the farmers surveyed were willing to grow cash crops with GM seeds, but 80 per cent of them said they would not cultivate food crops from seeds containing a poison to control pests. The response was consistent across big and small farmers and those educated or uneducated…The survey revealed low awareness among urban consumers of GM foods. ”

See more at: http://xrl.us/bhf7fp

Road Map for Delivering GM Crops to the Third World?

A Search for Regulators and a Road Map to Deliver GM Crops to Third World Farmers
March 31, 2010

The New York Times
by Gayathri Vaidyanathan of ClimateWire

“In the transgenic crop fight, the foot soldiers on either side have been dug in for years. But despite the doubts about the necessity of GM, farmers have been voting with their seeds.”

http://www.truthabouttrade.org/news/latest-news/15812-a-search-for-regulators…

Key points in article:

Now and what is to come:

* transgenic crop acreage is increasing with developing nations and small farming ops being the newest adopters (up 7% over the last year according to the ISAAA)
* European Commission predicts that by 2015 there will be 120 commercial crops grown worldwide (currently there are 30)
* ~ 90% of 14 million farmers worldwide that use GM are ‘resource
poor’ farmers

Problem:

* As many as 100 developing countries lack tech and management capacity to review tests and monitor compliance of GMs

“Biosafety regulations of countries are usually modeled after the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international agreement that promotes a “precautionary approach.” It says that GM crops can be adopted if they are of minimal risk to the environment and human health. It lays out a clear set of guidelines to test for that risk. But guidelines alone don’t suffice.”

Truth_about_trade_tech