Deregistered Canadian GM flax pops up in Europe

A Saskatchewan-bred, deregistered and never-commercialized flax variety that became both the first and last genetically modified linseed is reported to have turned up at a German food processing plant.

And anti-GM campaigners suggest the finding may lead to some embarrassing questions for Canada’s flax industry at a time when market prices for the crop are already under pressure.

The European Commission’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) on Tuesday got notification from Germany that flax variety FP967, otherwise known as CDC Triffid, was found by a company during a check of its cereal and bakery products.

According to the RASFF database Thursday, the unnamed German processor said it was notifying the products’ recipients and added that it was possible the products had already been put on the market.

The database reported that the flax in question had come from Canada by way of Belgium.

Blocked cargo

The RASFF report comes the week after cash bids for flax in Western Canada took a nosedive based on rumours that a cargo of Canadian flax had been blocked from unloading at a European port.

Barry Hall, president of the Flax Council of Canada, confirmed last week to Resource News International reporter Dwayne Klassen that European labs had been testing Canadian flax and their initial results pointed to the presence of NPTH, a genetic marker, in some samples.

No GM variety of flaxseed is either registered or commercially produced anywhere in Canada, Hall emphasized in an RNI report Sept. 4.

Observers say such a discovery in the GM-shy European Union could spell trouble for Canadian flax exports at an already-inopportune time.

About 500,000 to 700,000 tonnes of Canadian flax, about two thirds of Canadian flax production, are usually shipped to Europe each year, market analyst Mike Jubinville told RNI last week.

He noted carryover stocks at home are already near the “burdensome” point and the 2009-10 crop is expected to weigh in above average, further pressuring markets.

The RASFF report, furthermore, has not gone unnoticed among groups opposed to GM crops.

“Germany never approved GM flax but thanks to Canada we are eating illegal and unlicensed flax in our bread and cereal,” Stefanie Hundsdorfer, a spokesperson for Greenpeace Germany, said in a release Thursday.

“This again proves that once released into nature genetically engineered constructs are uncontrollable and cannot be recalled. At least now it’s clear that the industry is unable to control its products.”

“Day of the Triffids”

CDC Triffid (which shares its name with a star-forming nebula in deep space and a venomous mutant plant from a 1951 British science fiction novel and 1962 film, The Day of the Triffids) was bred at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre for tolerance to soil residues of sulfonylurea herbicides.

Such residues have been known to cause damage to conventional flax and keep the crop out of rotation for years on sulfonylurea-treated fields.

Triffid had picked up regulatory approval for release in 1998, but the Flax Council persuaded Canadian regulators to deregister the variety in 2001, according to the National Farmers Union in a release Thursday.

“Flax growers forced the GM flax off the market eight years ago to prevent any threat of contamination and protect our export markets,” NFU vice-president and Saskatchewan flax grower Terry Boehm said in the release. “GM flax was never wanted or needed. We knew it would destroy our European markets and now we fear this has happened.”

“This contamination is extremely shocking as GM flax has not been grown in Canada since 2001,” Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of the Ottawa-based Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, said in the same release. “Where did this contamination come from?”

“This is a major international contamination incident that shows how dangerous any GM crop field testing and development is for farmers and consumers,” said Arnold Taylor, an organic flax grower and chair of the Organic Agriculture Protection Fund of the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate.

CLARIFICATION, Sept. 11: A previous version of this article said CDC Triffid’s name was derived from the plants in The Day of the Triffids. However, the flax variety and the fictional plant also share their name with the Triffid Nebula, a star-forming region that’s about 5,000 light years from Earth, in the Sagittarius constellation. The word comes from a Latin term for a three-lobed organism.