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:

– – – –

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.

“We can’t go back to zero…” Triffid Flax: a year later

Check out this interview of SaskFlax Director Dave Sefton by Shaun Haney of RealAgriculture

“Moving ahead requires the development of low level presence policy in Canada…”  Dave Sefton – Director, SaskFlax


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

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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.


Document scavenging… I am an internet Magpie.

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“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” Tolstoy

Running out of patience.  Would rather not waste anymore time….

Still waiting <fingers drumming> . . . report from COCERAL (rumoured to be out/available).  Waiting to hear back from our friends at the industry rep organization about meetings rumoured to have been had with the EU and other parties here in Canada <fingers drumming>.  Unable to locate documentation or paper trail on anything <fingers drumming>.  

100% frustrated.




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
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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:

“Market Prospects”: Sefton and Weber on the current flax situation

Dave Sefton (SaskFlax) and Larry Weber (Weber Commodities) on the Triffid Flax situation

Market Prospects – March 20, 2010


Update to the Domestic Triffid Stewardship Program

The Flax Council of Canada announces changes to the existing Stewardship Program

(as of March 12, 2010 )

“The new stewardship option allows producers to use their own non-pedigreed seed for planting provided it first undergoes the same intense sampling and testing procedures as those used for certified seed being tested for Triffid. A representative 2 kg sample must be submitted to an approved laboratory for seed testing purposes. Each sample must represent a lot not exceeding 20 metric tonnes. The submitted sample must be clean of all weed seeds, chaff and straw.

Once received, the approved lab will follow the testing protocol requiring 4×60 gram grinds to be tested with positive results being defined as the detection of the presence of Triffid and negative being defined as no detection of any level of Triffid. There will be no threshold level of Triffid acceptable for planting seed. Only planting seed that has been tested negative is to be used for seeding purposes for 2010.”

NEWS RELEASE – Flax Council of Canada Announces Industry Stewardship Programfor Farm Saved Planting Seed 03.12.10 F.pdf
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