From “Eh” to “ZZZZZ….” – and throughout the day – Ag is important!

This was published on the Calgary Stampede Blog and in Huffington Post Alberta.  Are you a teacher? I invite you to use this material in the classroom setting…engage your students in discussions on how important agriculture is to us – EVERY DAY and throughout the day!

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From the time you wake up and your feet hit that hardwood floor until you tuck yourself into those cotton sheets at night, agriculture is a constant in your everyday life. 

What did you have for breakfast this morning?  Eggs? Perhaps a couple pieces of toast?

Between the farmgate and your morning breakfast plate, a lot happens!  The agriculture value chain is always at work bringing food to your table every day.  Eggs are recognized for their outstanding nutritional qualities containing vitamins, iron and protein. Did you know that there are more than 1000 registered egg farms in Canada? On average, flocks are comprised of just over 19,000 chickens that each lay ~300 eggs per year!  From whole wheat to rye to whole grain products, there are a number of healthy bread options. Did you know that Canada is known the world over for its premium wheat varieties?  Wheat is grown throughout Canada but mostly in the Prairies – with Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan being the three major growing provinces. Canadian mills grind over 3.5 million tonnes of wheat, oats and barley every year and export these products to over 30 countries!

r-WHEAT-FIELD-large570 HUFF PO Canada

How did you get to and from work or school?

Whether you drove or used public transportation, biofuels likely provided the fuel that got you from point “A” to point “B”.  There are two forms of biofuels: ethanol and biodiesel.  Ethanol is produced from crops like corn, sorghum, potatoes, wheat, and sugar cane. When ethanol is combined with gasoline, it creates fuel burning efficiencies.  Biodiesel is specifically designed for diesel engines and is derived from natural oils like soybeans. Like ethanol, it is a renewable fuel. Both forms of biofuels have definite advantages over petroleum-based alternatives gasoline – they are way better for the environment!

Photo source: Great Lakes Biodiesel

Photo source: Great Lakes Biodiesel

What’s for Dinner?

Do you fancy a BBQ? Rib steak with a side of quinoa and maybe a fresh garden salad?  There are 80,000 beef cattle ranches currently operating in Canada. In 2009 alone, Canada produced over 3 million pounds of beef.  Canada is the 6th largest beef exporting country in the world and the average Canadian eats approximately 46 pounds of beef per year!  Quinoa is a relatively new crop for Canadian agriculture but several varieties have been adapted to grow on the prairies.  If you have never tried it, quinoa is a great alternative to rice or pasta and has a mild, slightly nutty taste to it.  An excellent source of protein and carbohydrates, both the seeds and the leaves of the Quinoa plant can be eaten. The leaves can even be cooked and served as a side dish, similar to beet greens.  Speaking of green, what about a nice, fresh salad with that BBQ?

Photo Source: Alberta Beef

Photo Source: Alberta Beef

Now that we know what’s ‘on’ the BBQ, let’s talk about what’s in it. Did you know that biomass pellets and briquettes are made from agricultural and forest harvesting residues and are used in BBQs?  And not only in BBQs, but in boilers and furnaces as well! This alternative energy source is cost effective and helps us all to reduce fossil fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Good-night… and Good Ag!

It’s been a long day… how about an evening snack of cereal or a cup of warm milk before you hit the (cotton) sheets?  As you cross that kitchen linoleum floor to the fridge to grab a carton of milk, take note that flax oil is used to manufacture this type of flooring.  It is also used to finish wood and is an important component of the paint that is on your walls.  Most people think that flax is just for use in cereal or as a nutritional supplement.  It’s so much more than that! Flax is used to make linen fabric and is currently being developed as insulation for buildings and as composites in car dashboards, too! Flax is such a flexible crop and Canada is a world leading producer and exporter of flax.

Finally, as that milk simmers on the stove, think about this. The typical dairy cow produces 30 litres of milk from two daily milkings! The dairy industry ranks third in the Canadian agricultural sector following grains and oilseeds, and red meats. Most (80+%) dairy farms are located in Ontario and Quebec and the average dairy operation has about 60 cows.  That means lots of wholesome dairy goodness  – including cheese, yogurt and cream – on your table every day!

Photo source: Rural Living Canada

Photo source: Rural Living Canada

From “Eh” to “Zzzzz….” – and throughout the day – Canadians use hundreds of things that are products of modern agriculture.  From food to fuels; from linoleum to lotions – agriculture plays an important role in our day-to-day lives.

Look around you… what things can you see that come from agriculture?

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Don’t miss Aggie Days April 13 and 14 at the BMO Centre, Stampede Park. Admission is FREE for everyone! And make sure you become a fan and follower of the Aggie Days Facebook and Twitter accounts for all the latest news!

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…”


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: 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:

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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.

Transgenic Flax research and trials being carried out in EU

January 13, 2011

Several months ago, as colleague Viktoriya G and I were developing our Flax Breeders paper, I came across some interesting information in the Deliberate releases and placing on the EU market of Genetically Modified Organisms database.  This database is under the umbrella of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre/Institute for Health and Consumer Protection.

What information, you ask?  Well, listed therein are three summary notifications of submissions made under Directive 2001/18/EC outlining the experimental release of transgenic flax varieties in the EU.  

The first was submitted by Plant Science Sweden AB for the release of linseed lines genetically modified for altered oil composition in seed (using the variety “Flanders” – a noted CDC variety (circa 1989).  This experimental release was intended to span the years from 2005-2009. The GM event here involved the enhancement of oils in the flax.

The second submission was made by The Institute of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology ,University of Wroclaw, Poland.  This submission, made in 2006, with a proposed period of release of 2006 – 2010 used the breeding lines Nike and Linola.  The GM event in this case involved the improvement of fibres quality and the increase of antioxidant capacity in the varieties.

Third, was a submission in 2007 made by a company in the Czech Republic, AgriTec Research, Breeding and Services Ltd, for the Evaluation of genetic modifications for use in flax breeding.  The period of release, in this case, is quite a bit longer – 2007 to 2016.  Presumably, it is still in progress.  Cultivars are not identified. The GM events listed are enhanced herbicide tolerance, fungal and insect tolerance and enhanced capacity to absorb heavy metal pollutants.

These flax-based submissions/experimental releases represent only three out of a list of almost 3000 notifications of transgenic crops (in various other varieties and for release in many other countries). So, even though there is strong opposition to GMOs, it appears that research in transgenics in the EU is prevalent.  The total amount of field trial area for the experimental transgenic flax is minuscule, comparatively speaking.  Nevertheless, if Canada should, in any way, move away from research in flax transgenics, do we would stand to lose important markets, a potentially competitive edge and key knowledge as a result?   

(see for more information and a link to the Galushko/Ryan paper on flax breeding, IPRs and FTO)

Life-cycle of linen – from flower to fibre

Director Benoit Millet from France just released this exquisitely-shot fifteen-minute-long film, “Be Linen” based in France that explains the process behind the production of linen. (French with English subtitles)


Outline of Protocol Development for sampling/testing CDN flaxseed/shipments to the EU (2009)

Download this file

Download this file

Background information on genetically modified material found in Canadian flaxseed

excerpt from:The Canadian Grain Commission website

Protocol development

  • The Canadian Grain Commission and the Flax Council of Canada, along with other Canadian government departments and agencies, developed a protocol for sampling and testing Canadian flaxseed shipments to the European Union.
  • Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency were involved in the development of the protocol.
  • The objective of the protocol is to help the Canadian flaxseed industry meet the European Union’s strict import requirements, which include a zero tolerance for unapproved genetically modified material.
  • The protocol was submitted to European officials the week of October 19, 2009. Canadian Grain Commission officials traveled to Brussels, to explain the Canadian grain handling and quality assurance systems and answer questions on aspects of the protocol.
  • The European Commission recommended to individual European Union Member States that the protocol be accepted. The European Commission expressed its satisfaction with the protocol on October 29, 2009. At present, the imposition of emergency measures by individual Member States in the European Union has been avoided.
  • The acceptance of the protocol is only the first step in resuming Canadian flaxseed shipments to the European Union. Many details concerning the implementation of the protocol are currently in development.




Well, I am leaving on a jet plane… heading to Amsterdam (three times a charm) for the Centre for Society & Genomics Conference “TEN YEARS AFTER – Mapping the societal landscape of genomics” at the Royal Tropical Institute on May 27-28th. It is yet another opportunity to present “…the flax, ma’am, just the flax!” Plus, I plan to connect with old colleagues and meet some new ones. On Friday, I head to Brussels for a meeting with representatives from COCERAL, the voice for the European cereals, rice, feedstuffs, oilseeds, olive oil, oils and fats and agrosupply trade as well as someone from European Commission. We are collaborating with this group to conduct the economic and social impact analysis of advantitious precense of Triffid flax on the industry (Canada and the EU). Ah yes, we do plan to solve the world’s problems one seed at a time!

So that’s work… but for fun, I hope to once again get to the Rijks Museum (check out some Rembrandts – booyeah!) and head to the Jordaan area of town (as recommended by colleague, Lars). Perhaps a boat tour of Amsterdam would be in order… haven’t done that before. I will keep the ‘Kaleidoscopers’ posted as to how things transpire!


‘Camster’ AKA ‘Hamster’ AKA ‘Rodentia Magnificus’ AKA ‘Ro-Mag’


mapping the Canadian and EU flax supply chain: a systematic analysis to estimate costs associated with AP & Triffid Flax

Centre for Society and Genomic’s “Ten Years After: Mapping the Societal Genomic Landscape” Conference
May 2010

Smyth&Ryan-AP 2010 Extended Abstract.pdf
Download this file

Flax Acreage expected to drop this year…

In light of the recent Triffid issue, a drop in acreage is not a

Flax acreage predicted to drop
by Neil Billinger

Larry Weber of Weber Commodities is quoted as saying: “There are some estimates in the trade as high as 1.3 million acres…I have seen some as low as 700,000 acres. I think 700,000 will be on the low side, but I don’t think we are going to get to a million acres of flax this year.”

Weber says European buyers are paying more for flax than last year. Even so, he estimates growers are losing a minimum of $3 a bushel.

Canadian producers planted 1.7 million acres of flax in 2009.

Read more at:

Planting Farm Saved Flaxseed this Spring?

Guidelines for Testing for Producers
March 26, 2010
Flax Council of Canada

Procedures for testing Farm Saved Seed:

* To ensure the highest confidence in the testing procedures, a sample of seed must be drawn across the entire lot of seed. This may be done a number of ways; however the best and most preferred method is to sample directly from a clean seed stream. This includes but is not limited to sampling as the clean seed is:
o coming off the cleaners,
o being loaded into a truck,
o being transferred from the truck into a seed bin on farm.

* A minimum 4 subsamples per 1 metric tonne (1 sample per 10 bu) must be drawn and mixed thoroughly. e.g. a 5 mt lot will require 20 subsamples
* A lot may not be any larger than 20 mt.
* A representative 2 kg sample is to be submitted to a lab on the FCC’s list of approved testing labs for Triffid testing (4×60 g).
* At harvest or delivery of the 2010 crop, the grower will be asked to provide a certificate of laboratory analysis that verifies the planting seed tested negative.

A list of ISO approved laboratory is provided as well.