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.

#GM #Canola #DownUnder; Demands for better #GM #testing / Crop Biotech Update


**Excerpts from Crop Biotech Update, dated July 9, 2010

***GM Canola Yield Triples in Western Australia*

The Australian Oilseeds Federation (AOF) estimates that national GM canola acreage more than tripled as a result of the commercialization of genetically modified (GM) canola in Western Australia. Despite having been grown for only a year in Western Australia, planting of GM canola is over 50 percent of total production. AOF projects that GM plantings will make up around 8 percent of the total canola crop of around 1.61 million hectares.

“This rapid uptake by technologically savvy Australian growers supports how useful the GM varieties can be in a production system to better manage weeds, reduce tillage, lower fuel use and provide alternatives to residual herbicides,” said Peter O’Keeffe, head of Monsanto Australia. He added that figures “clearly indicate that approved GM canola varieties are being embraced by farmers, and that the NSW, Victorian and Western Australian government’s decisions have benefited agriculture by enabling choice-based access to the technology.”

For the original article see…

*Demand Increasing for Suitable GM Testing and Approval Process*

The global and scientific challenge of GMO testing was discussed during the fourth EuroScience Open Forum in Turin last July 6, 2010. According to experts, the challenge includes choosing suitable sampling techniques and finding ways to come up with credible results. The development and adoption of GM crops continue to advance through the years. However, the approval processes for commercializing the GM crops vary from country to country, which affects the global food trade. Thus, it is difficult to come up with a consistent and similar testing and approval process.

Senior Scientist Claudia Paoletti of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said that extensive research is required on the genetic variations that can take place among the samples of particular GM products, which also need complex sampling procedures. “It is not only important to know how many samples are being tested but also how they have been taken,” Paoletti said. “We need to find the balance between good science and time and financial constraints.”

Visit to view the summary of the workshop.

Accurate GM testing: important to know how many samples are being tested but also how they have been taken

Demand growing for accurate GM testing

T. V. Padma

7 July 2010

“Countries worldwide are increasingly calling for reliable and comparable testing and approval processes, which are difficult to achieve, experts said at the meeting.

“The theory of GMO testing has been developed but its actual practice is proving to be challenging,” Guy van den Eede, a researcher at the EU’s Joint Research Council, told /SciDev.Net/.

Claudia Paoletti, a senior scientist at the GMO unit of the European Food Safety Authority, said that more research is needed on the genetic variations that can occur within samples of specific GM products, which requires complicated sampling protocols which themselves create various sampling errors.”

Full article 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.


“…USDA will begin enforcing rules that require the spot testing of organically grown foods for traces of pesticides…”

Kevin Hursh posted this online today….

Hursh on Agriculture

*March 28, 2010*

*Inserting some science into organic*
It appears that the United States is going to start some testing of organic food to make sure it’s actually organic. Mischa Popoff, a former audit-based inspector based in B.C. has long been pushing for organic testing in both the U.S. and Canada. Now, Popoff is pointing at stories in The New York Times which indicate that the USDA will begin enforcing rules that require the spot testing of organically grown foods for traces of pesticides. According to the news stories, spot testing is expected to begin in September. There have been cases in the U.S. where it has taken years for any action against producers and processors selling conventional product and claiming it as organic. The majority of organic products are imported into North America and the organic verification is only paperwork. Organic certification will always require a paper trail, but the industry also needs some scientific testing and some ability to stop those who are abusing the designation. Otherwise the organic label doesn’t have much credibility. Hopefully, Canada will pay attention to the actions starting south of the border. I’m Kevin Hursh.

Check out Mischa Popoff’s site:

Matters of Flax: the ongoing Triffid story

“Matters of Flax: the ongoing Triffid story”

I gave a presentation at the Saskatchewan Institute of Agrologists (SIA) AGM at the Willows in Saskatoon tonight. Great group, good questions, highly responsive….

Saskatchewan Institute of Agrologists

SIA TRIFFID March 2010 CDR.pdf
Download this file

Triffid and the Canadian Flax Market – Aggressive testing not a silver bullet (Hall)

Canada’s $320-million flax export industry has been shaken by the discovery of a genetically modified seed believed to have been expunged years ago. (CBC)

Canadian flax seed has been shut out of its largest market after traces of Triffid — a genetically modified form of the crop ordered destroyed 10 years ago — was found in shipments.

The European Union, which buys 70 per cent of Canada’s flax, has a zero-tolerance policy regarding genetically modified organisms and has been turning away shipments.

Officials say Canada’s entire $320-million industry is threatened.

But efforts to correct the situation are being thwarted because it’s not clear where the genetically modified flax is coming from. An industry-wide scramble has been on to weed out the offending seed since the problem was discovered in September.

But when only about one in every 10,000 flax seeds are affected, the Canadian Grain Commission, as well as farmers and members of the Flax Council of Canada, admit they have their work cut out for them trying to track down the source of the problem.

Sifting grain, DNA Tests

The modified Triffid flax seed was deregistered and ordered destroyed 10 years ago. (CBC)

At the CGC’s headquarters in Winnipeg, grain inspectors have been sifting through samples of flax, and scientists have been testing for the DNA footprint of the genetically modified strain of flax called Triffid.

Triffid was developed in the 1990s at the University of Saskatchewan and named after the flesh-eating plants featured in John Wyndham’s 1951 novel, The Day of the Triffids.

The modified seed was deregistered and ordered destroyed 10 years ago after concerns arose from farmers that the EU would reject it.

‘It’s a situation no one could have foreseen and it’s taken everyone by surprise.’—Remi Gosselin, Canadian Grain Commission

Mysteriously, Triffid has reappeared in commercial crops.

The flax was genetically engineered to contain genes from a weed added to it, allowing it to grow in soil contaminated by herbicides.

“It’s a situation no one could have foreseen and it’s taken everyone by surprise,” said CGC spokesman Remi Gosselin. “The CGC got written assurances in the late ’90s that Triffid had been cleared from the system.”

Two more of the 10 flax varieties handled by the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre have shown genetic contamination, managing director Dorothy Murrell told CBC News.

“We’re puzzled, but regardless of that, we’re taking action and trying to do our part to remove the problem as much as we can,” she said. “I’m quite confident that we can remove these two varieties at the pedigree-seed level from the market.”

Problem may be bigger than thought

Aggressive testing is underway to detect and round up all of the modified seed. (CBC)

But the Flax Council of Canada, based in Winnipeg, said the country’s genetically modified seed problem might run deeper than the strains the university has identified.

“I’m quite certain as we start to test the certified seed, there will be other varieties that will show contamination,” said Barry Hall, the council’s president. “There’s no question this will change the industry forever.”

The industry is responding by implementing a three-stage testing regime, Hall said.

‘There’s no question this will change the industry forever.’—Barry Hall, Flax Council of Canada

“The farm samples are tested. The rail cars are tested. And then, as the vessel is loaded, samples are drawn and tested by the Canadian Grain Commission,” he said.

But aggressive testing isn’t a silver bullet to round up all the genetically modified flax seed, Hall admits.

“It doesn’t mean the Europeans can’t test further and it will turn up positive there. Canada is doing everything it can to clean this up.”

The worst-case scenario for flax producers is that the industry will shut down for three to five years to purge whatever seed is already growing, Hall said. Eventually, he added, all contaminated seeds will be taken off the market and destroyed.

Farmer’s union predicted problems

But Hall’s assurance hasn’t convinced the National Farmers’ Union.

“Myself and others predicted this would happen and that’s why we worked to get rid of [it] 10 years ago,” said president Terry Boehm. “If you’re going to play around with [genetically modified] crops, once the genie’s out of the bottle, once it’s in the environment, you can’t control it,” Boehm said.

Federal officials are in talks with the EU in hopes of raising its tolerance for genetically modified organisms, but Hall said he believes lobby groups have European politicians wary of change.