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Flax on the road to recovery in a post-Triffid world

Flax is back now that a GM variety is flushed out of the system, but there’s new competition from the former Soviet Union

After six years, the “Day of the Triffids” appears to be ending for Canada’s flaxseed industry.

Triffid is a genetically modified variety of flax that was rather unfortunately named after the creatures in The Day of the Triffids, a 1951 novel about carnivorous plants bioengineered in the USSR that escape and blind people with their poisonous stingers.

Although the variety received Canadian regulatory feed and environment safety authorizations in 1996 and food safety authorizations in 1998, Triffid was never released for commercial production in Canada. It was de-registered in 2001 over concerns the variety could disrupt export trade, and it was thought to have been destroyed. But like its namesake, it escaped and was detected in shipments to Europe in 2009, effectively shutting down sales to Canada’s largest customer.

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“We are approaching the time when we will hopefully see an end to any concerns over this issue in Canadian production,” says Don Kerr, president of the Flax Council of Canada.

Although many strides have been made down this hard road, Triffid isn’t yet gone and forgotten.

“There is always the possibility that in the sampling and testing process we could come across a sample that shows a positive result,” says Kerr, adding measures are in place to prevent a positive-testing shipment from reaching a customer.

Before discovering traces of Triffid, exports to Western Europe represented about 65 per cent of Canada’s total flaxseed exports. By 2011-12, Canadian sales to Europe were down to as little as 20,000 tonnes, versus the all-time high of 400,000.

prairie flax acreage

Source: Statistics Canada
photo: Source: Statistics Canada

Rigid testing protocol

Canada’s flax industry responded to European concerns with stringent sampling and testing protocols, and has since recovered some market share to the point the EU now represents about 20 per cent of Canadian flax exports.

“It’s fair to say there’s no crop grown in Canada that undergoes more strict scrutiny in terms of sampling and testing than flaxseed,” says Kerr, explaining protocols extend from the producer to the end-user to ensure customers are confident in the system’s integrity.

Another precaution was making reconstituted certified seed available to farmers. Grown and produced in New Zealand under strict conditions to guarantee the seed was GMO free, it was supplied to farmers in 2014.

“Growers basically consumed all of the supplies. The second generation became available this year, and that was provided to producers who didn’t have a chance to plant the reconstituted seed last year,” says Kerr. “So now we’ve covered a vast majority of growers in Western Canada with reconstituted seed, and we’ve encouraged the growers if they’re going to store seed, that they store that reconstituted seed. And I think growers have responded very positively.”

Black Sea competition

Germany, however, continues not to import Canadian flaxseed, and the Black Sea took market share in the rest of Europe while Canada was shut out. Record flaxseed production in Russia and Kazakhstan means Canada has its work cut out.

Weather and transportation challenges in Kazakhstan, though, make Kerr believe Canada can compete.

“They don’t have the infrastructure that we do, and one of the things that is an advantage for Canada is we are a reliable supplier,” adds Jonathon Driedger, senior market analyst with FarmLink Marketing Solutions.

But he notes South America also faces logistics problems such as port congestion, and yet their soybeans still manage to find a way to market.

“If you start getting a consistently reliable supply out of the Black Sea region in a growing way, maybe that whittles away our role in Western Europe,” Driedger says.

When Canadian sales to Europe were cut off, China came in as a buyer and has become Canada’s most important flaxseed customer. If any customer is responsible for flaxseed production returning to pre-Triffid levels, it’s China.

“We’re at about 850,000 tonnes [production], and China (buys) in excess of 350,000 tonnes of Canadian flax. So they are 50 per cent of our market at the moment,” says Kerr.

“When we had that Triffid episode, if it hadn’t been for China stepping in, it would have been a colossally worse train wreck than it ended up being,” says Driedger. “But when you rely heavily on one market you are vulnerable to a slowdown in purchases.”

Diversifying beyond China

Driedger says Kazakhstan’s direct rail link to China could also be a competitive threat.

Kerr, however, doesn’t sound worried, saying “The market in China is certainly big enough to take even more flax than they’re taking now.”

And Driedger indicates Chinese demand hasn’t necessarily peaked.

“Their demand for some of these crops has just continued to grow, and flax is just one on the list. Maybe potentially that continues to grow,” Driedger says.

Nevertheless, Kerr is aware of the potential pitfalls with Canada’s heavy reliance on China, and the Flax Council is working on ways to diversify sales. Japan, another country that detected trace amounts of GM flax in 2009, is one of those destinations.

“Japan has always been an important market for Canadian product, and at the moment Japan is in the process of looking at accepting flaxseed for feed and industrial use,” says Kerr. “So far the food use of flaxseed in Japan is still somewhat inaccessible to Canadian seed, so we’re working to try and resolve that issue. It’s partly because of GMO protocols and partly because of cyanogenic glycoside issues within the Japanese market.”

Cyanide glycoside is a natural component of some plants. Japan sets a maximum content of 10 parts per million in flaxseed.

India is another possible market, and one Kerr says has huge potential. India produces its own flax, but there are other crops competing for acres. The Flax Council believes it can make inroads into India’s food market by promoting the health and nutritional benefits of flaxseed.

“At the moment there isn’t a lot of flaxseed going into India, but it’s certainly on the radar screen and something that we’re looking at trying to change,” Kerr says.

The U.S. has also become a significant buyer, taking as much as 25 per cent of Canadian flax exports. Although its own production has been increasing, Driedger doesn’t anticipate Canadian sales there will dry up. He ties greater U.S. flax acres to attractive prices more than any structural shift, and expects Americans to remain significant buyers.

“For them to ramp up production to the degree that they don’t need to buy any of our flax, I don’t anticipate that likely being the case in the foreseeable future.”

New varieties and markets

Kerr expects acres to grow in 2016, but acknowledges higher yields would help, saying “We’re now investing a good deal of our financial resources into research programs that are going to hopefully result in better yields for growers. And that’ll pencil into better returns.”

The Flax Council is also aiming to grow its share in the food and feed sectors.

Launched last February, the marketing program targets consumer awareness of flax’s health benefits, particularly the claim approved by Health Canada linking ground whole flax to lowering cholesterol.

“That’s where we see a huge potential to grow the flax market in North America and abroad,” says Kerr.

Omega, a golden flax variety, was added to Canada eastern and western classes in August. Kerr estimated 10 to 20 per cent of varieties coming on stream are golden flax, and he expects more will be introduced over the next few years.

“The demand is good, it commands a premium right now over brown flax, and it seems to be a product that’s preferred in some of the baking industry. It’s something that we want to ensure we can provide.”

This article was originally published as “Triffid recovery” in the March 15, 2016 issue of Country Guide

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  • The Flax Council of Canada inflicted untold damage on Canadian farmers when it failed to stand up to our European trading partners on this issue. They surrendered, evidence that they are controlled by organic activists. For this they should be ashamed. GMOs do not contaminate other crops. It’s that simple.

    • AgroforestryTBD

      GMOs can get mixed in with others crops in the field or through transportation.

      • How does this constitute “contamination” unless there is some measurable effect?

        • AgroforestryTBD

          Contamination is the presence of an unwanted constituent, contaminant or impurity in a material, physical body, natural environment, workplace, etc.

          • Contamination must have an effect.

            A difference that doesn’t make any difference is no difference at all.

            If there is no discernible effect to GMO “contamination,” then can I assume it’s magic that you’re referring to?

          • AgroforestryTBD

            So if you can test a difference between GM and non GM there must be a difference whether there is scientific evidence for effect or not. It may be a preference. Not sure where you are going with this…

          • Preference is marketing, not science.

            Until someone can show an actual effect caused by GMO as opposed to non-GMO seed, there will be no such thing as GMO contamination.

          • AgroforestryTBD

            Than maybe you should suggest a definition change on the word contamination. Currently what you are saying is false based on definition whether it’s what you want or not.

          • Again, what you’re referring to is marketing.

            There is no need to change any definition.

          • AgroforestryTBD

            what you say doesn’t make any sense to me

          • As long as the rest of the world follows along we’ll be just fine without you my friend.

          • AgroforestryTBD

            Wow. Well looks like the word contamination is still up there and there is a clear definition to contradict what you are attempting to sway. Whether it’s “marketing” or not. It’s still defined as contamination. Unless you can prove your point logically or have the ability to thoroughly explain yourself. Until than the word being used is contaminated and based on definition the product was contaminated with GM.

          • “Contamination” is used when a pathogen or toxin infects our food. GMOs are not pathogenic or toxic.

          • AgroforestryTBD

            Here I will provide a link so we can stop this childish argument.


          • Did you even read the definition before posting that link?

            It says contamination is unwanted pollution, and gives the example of a nuclear power plant leaking radiation, causing contamination of the surrounding area. We know what happens when people and animals are exposed to too much radiation. We have yet to observe any damage caused to people, animals or any living thing when exposed to GMOs.

            Thanks for clarifying.

          • AgroforestryTBD

            Did you even consider to continue reading? Reading comprehension and completing the reading is important.

            You’re welcome

          • Yes, I did. And when I got to where it started referring to “abstract ideas,” I thought it best not to embarrass you further.

          • AgroforestryTBD

            I am not embarrassed whatsoever don’t you worry there market contaminator

          • excusemebut2

            Popoff would argue black was white if it suited his biotech agenda TBD, as evidenced by his ridiculous carrying on here. He is an ass of the first degree and has all of the “talking points” down fine. He believes that the consumer should have absolutely NO choice as to the consumption of GEed products whatsoever.
            A failed politico who’s viewpoints were even too off track for the nut cases who massed under the Harper wingnut crowd, I suspect he is still sticking to his and his petro buddies at Heartland’s view that humans couldn’t possibly be changing the climate of the planet. NOPE.
            Arguing with this dip is a waste of time and only gives him chance to puff up his ego and think he is important more than he does.

          • I am pro-organic and pro-GMO. Is that a black or a white position?

          • excusemebut2

            Nope….it is a very very sad one. It shows how mixed up you really are.

          • It would seem you’re the one seeing everything in black and white.

          • AgroforestryTBD

            To distinguish between 2 different organisms is very scientific. I’m confused by your contradictions.

          • GMO papaya and non-GMO papaya are still the same organism, just as organic papaya and non-organic papaya are.

          • AgroforestryTBD

            is there a test that can distinguish the difference?

          • There are tests that can distinguish between different types and species of papaya. But that doesn’t mean they’re different fruits.

          • AgroforestryTBD

            That’s some awesome science!

          • What’s awesome? Distinguishing between different types of papaya?

          • AgroforestryTBD

            That’s some awesome science!

      • excusemebut2

        Popoff blames the Flax Council for not trying to market the products people want. Instead of blaming the asshat who spread the unapproved seed int the first place. Really. GMOs do NOT contaminate other crops only in this asshats definition and wet biotech dreams.
        This clown is the worst type of industry apologist.

        • No… allow me to clarify. I blame the Flax Council for not standing behind the crops Canadian farmers want to grow which allow them to safely and efficiently produce the products people want.

          • excusemebut2

            Oh? Canadian farmers were clamouring for GMO flax? Prove it.
            Consumers were just totally panting for GMO flax? Really now.
            Seems the markets rejected it, so much for that theory.
            The Flax Council is powerful and persuasive enough to overturn the politics and desires of Japan or Europe, wow, what a powerful bunch. LOL.
            You are entertaining when you get going.

          • Consumers want flax. Farmers have trouble growing flax because it’s a poor competitor with weeds. So along comes GMO flax, and everyone’s happy.

          • excusemebut2

            I have been eating flax for years without GMO inputs. I also know people who grow it. I call bullshit on your perception that GMO flax is so important. So we have herbicide resistant flax, interesting, where does that fit in with your pro-organic? Which organic herbicide was that crap resistant to anyway? LOL You mixed up son.

          • So you know people who grow flax. All right. But I grew flax and can attest it’s a very poor competitor with weeds.

            To clarify this idea of growing organic GMO flax, yes, I support both organics and GMO, and I believe some GMO crops – perhaps many – should be grown organically. But, at present, a herbicide-resistant GMO crop would not qualify to be organic.

          • hyperzombie

            You shouldn’t eat too much flax, it is bad for your health if you consume too much.

      • hyperzombie


  • AgroforestryTBD

    Feed for what? What industrial uses does this have?

    • hyperzombie

      Flax makes linseed oil, it is used for all kinds of stuff, like paints and stains. Linen is also made from flax.

      • First Officer

        Can it form cyanide when heated?

        • hyperzombie

          I think it has cyanide in it naturally. I dont get why anyone would eat it, it is used to make paint and deck stain, and that really doesn’t appeal to me.

  • AgroforestryTBD

    “Cyanide glycoside is a natural component of some plants. Japan sets a maximum content of 10 parts per million in flaxseed.”

    Why does Japan do this and how would they contain more or less?

    • We worry far too much about Japan and Europe’s absurd requirements. If they want, they’re welcome to go out and shop around the world for a more reliable, safe and inexpensive supply of wheat, flax and canola. I say, GOOD LUCK!

      • AgroforestryTBD

        And what drives that opinion?

        • Let Japan source grain from China. What could possibly go wrong?

          Let Europe source grain from Poland and Ukraine like it did before the Soviets destroyed farming in those nations, much as Mao destroyed farming in China.

          Japan and Europe buy from Canada and America because we’re the best. End of story.

          • AgroforestryTBD

            My question still remains unanswered.

            “Cyanide glycoside is a natural component of some plants. Japan sets a maximum content of 10 parts per million in flaxseed.”

            How would they contain more or less?

          • Good question. I’m not sure. Nor do I understand why Japan is so picky.

          • kfunk937

            Japan has made bad public health decisions for political reasons for decades. See the measles epidemics that followed their decision to unendorse the combo vaccine because it was urabe strain, or what happened with pertussis/whooping cough when a similar decision was made. Fortunately, they’ve reversed some.

          • Great examples! And now Japan is following suit by making the political decision to ban GMOs.

          • excusemebut2

            Popoff……that is what you and your corporate agenda is about in a nut shell isn’t it. TPP and all….forcing unwanted products, standards and so forth on every market in the world so they are bending to your plan. If Japan and others set standards, and YOU cannot understand why, or in your massive knowledge of everything in the world, agree with those standards then you condemn them right. Just like your plan to force GEed products onto the organic market. The case of this flax cost us in Canada plenty because of the corporate agenda, seeds being spread around without the total implications being considered. Just like half of the farmland is Sask now has some presence of herbicide resistant weeds that is, and is going to continue to cost plenty to deal with.
            I have asked pro monoculture, industrial farming method proponents WHO is paying for this resistance, farmers, or the chem companies, and WHO actually stands to make money from this problem, farmers or the chem companies with new products and patents. No answer I got, very telling.

          • AgroforestryTBD

            Farmers are taking the risk to buy these seeds and sell their product. There isn’t clear evidence or sufficient scientific evidence, but it is appearing that organic products based on its growing procedures and upkeep, it is superior to its conventional counterpart. Set aside yield and all that other mumbo jumbo. A gallon of organic milk may be nutritionally superior to conventional. An organic strawberry or banana may be nutritionally superior. Some say the taste of organic produce even tastes better. I am a strong believer. I love the organic oranges, bananas, eggs, butter, milk, poultry, and wild fish.

            If you ever have an opportunity try organic valley vitamin D milk next to a conventional counterpart. I would love to hear the taste test opinions.

          • excusemebut2

            You key point is so important, the risk of market problems, damaging their land and of incurring extra costs to fight tolerant weeds etc ALL rests on the farmer, the one who lays everything on the line.

          • Marketing can never be allowed to supersede science.

          • excusemebut2

            “Marketing can never be allowed to supersede science.”

            OMG… have your sense of humour on today. Coming from a proGMOer, supporter of an industry that makes claims of feeding the world, false claims of sustainability, and others too numerous to mention that are so transparently spun and exaggerated, and spends millions marketing its form of “science, lobbying against the consumer by denying label requests.

            Carry on…you’re a mixed up fellow.

          • You must believe the American farmer is too stupid to realize that GMO crops are a failure, because American farmers sure love their GMO crops!

          • excusemebut2

            Do you know what…….with the good deal of discourse I have had with midwest farmers, I do not believe, I know, a good deal of them are wilfully ignorant and are being sold down the road by biotech and chem ag. The portion of total grocery dollars spent that is being returned to producers is shrinking steadily and has been for some time. The majority is going to inputs, marketing and processing and useless vampires like the GMA, CRA and for lobbies to keep the status quo.

            Open your eyes, I work with farmers, I see the pressure and the lack of support.

          • Were these same midwest farmers also sold down the road when synthetic ammonium nitrate was introduced after WW1? Or how about when synthetic pesticides were introduced?

            Farmers who spend too much on inputs go out of business. End of story. The rest are doing just fine please and thank you.

          • excusemebut2

            Interesting your spin. Yup, just reduce them inputs bud, all will be fine. How much does a bag of GMO canola seed cost anyway Popoff, I know, do you?
            Farmers doing great….yes actually a falling dollar and tanking oil prices have done well for farmers lately. HOWEVER…that does not negate the fact that you can read documents presented to the Canadian Government dated 2006 which bewail the farm income situation as being in a massive crisis, which it was. How soon you forget if it is handy to do so.
            Ammonium nitrate….good stuff….very good for the land, very energy miserly…(sarc)

          • Most GMO seed is non-proprietary, and can be purchased for the same price as regular seed.

            Any more lame theories from the person who’s never farmed?

          • hyperzombie

            How much does a bag of GMO canola seed cost anyway Popoff, I know, do you? “
            It depends on how much seed you buy and what type you buy. There is Non GMO Canola that is More expensive than GMO canola. Nexen Canola for example, and they will not sell it to just any farmer, you have to apply to grow it and if you qualify they track your production to make sure you are not saving any seed. Far stricter terms of use than for any GMO crop.

          • Name one way in which organic products are superior to their conventional counterparts?

          • I oppose the TPP. Organic farmers practice monoculture just like conventional farmers do. I am 100% independent, and take money from no GMO corporations.

          • excusemebut2

            Popoff….. 100% independent eh? Right. I believe you. You make an ass out of yourself for free? This is interesting. That makes it all better, LOL. I believe every word you say now…..haha.

            I notice how you managed here to point the blame for the flax in in question here at everyone, people who like organic, (oooo..those dirty stupid hippy activists infiltrating everywhere) the Flax Council, the Europeans, the Japanese…..did I miss anyone? YOU DID. Let us talk about the people or perhaps especially the person who released and spread the unapproved seed in the first place, that basically not very many people wanted? Seems maybe nobody wanted. No blame there at all, nope, not at all. As I have said many times, WHO pays for the screw ups and damage caused by bullshit like this, and stuff like herbicide tolerance, and environmental damage due to industrial agriculture Popoff, WHO the hell is on the hook. Biotech and agrichem companies clean up their own mess…..??? Likely.

            Mischa, I have read a lot of drivel in my day, but you and your transparent spins take the cake.

            Like I said, anyone that has to stoop to such lowness to spin the meaning of a word, contaminated, for example, even though you know perfectly well what people are saying is a con artist.

            I was remotely curious for about two seconds to know why you oppose TPP, but having experience with you I got over it pretty quick, and couldn’t really care less. I’m OK now.

          • If we agree the TPP is a disaster, perhaps you should take a few minutes to learn why I support GMOs and organic farming.

          • excusemebut2

            I will never understand your stupid GMO and organic farming position, because it is based on pure ideology.

          • Keeping organics and GMOs separated is pure political ideology. It has no basis in science.

          • excusemebut2

            Nice try. A mother’s desire to not feed her young GMOs is political now?
            How come every organic producer I talk to thinks your full of feces, to put it mildly, I won’t go into the other more colorful descriptions of your wack a doodle viewpoint I have heard. Yeah, organic producers love ya, organic consumers are right with ya….LOL.

            Go back to denying carbon warms the atmosphere, might have more luck.

          • First of all, roughly three-quarters of all grain feed for the Amertican organic dairy sector comes from foreign sources like China.

            Second of all, of course a mother’s desire to not feed her kids GMOs is political. It sure’s heck ain’t scientific.

          • excusemebut2

            You are all mixed up Popoff. Sadly so. So is America.
            Re the American trade balance with respect to organics. DUH??? Why is that? You told me American farmers were smart, if they are so smart why are they not growing this organic feed themselves? At least the Chinese recognizes what the market is looking for, Americans are too stupid and bullheaded to realize where the demand is. They are brainwashed into thinking that the industrial method of agri is the only way to go, stubbornly so, pigheaded like you. I have had them brag to me about being able to grow corn on corn for DECADES on the same land. Yeah, they love their GMOs, you say. The easy way out. These same bright farmers spend their spare time bashing organic growing, reciting the mantra according to biotech how they are sustainable, feeding the world, spins and lies like glyphosate is “safe” because it has a LD50 higher than vinegar and such other bullshit. Why an organic deficit…..stupidity and industry propaganda.

            Cash crops for export and junk food, corn, soya, canola, yuch. Cheap corn so the average overweight American can get his 70 some pounds each of HFCS they consume anually, and yet the majority of the American population is in one way or another is malnourished, missing elements of essential micro or other nutrients due to the refined crappy food.

            Keep up your mantra too about the “sameness” of GEed products. That is the premise of your whole line of bullshit about promoting GE as organic, and it is sadly lacking in believability. It just pisses me off when asshats like you want to force things on people they do not want, need, or trust. Your biotech business has and will have a lot to answer for, but as corporate shells will not pay the price they should. Who cleans up the mess when things go sideways, YOU you misguided moron? Doubt it.

          • The reason American organic farmers aren’t growing this organic feed themselves is that the American organic dairy industry isn’t willing to pay them what it costs to grow it. The Chinese meanwhile are simply defrauding us.

          • excusemebut2

            Nice spin. There are other reasons beside stupidity why American farmers are not growing organic, lack of handling facilities for one. Nice simplification of the situation.
            I am not a fan of Chinese imported food and avoid it, however the Chinese are merely taking advantage of market opportunities. Thought you were a free enterpriser. Oh…only like rules and situations that suit you personally, right?

          • I was a USDA organic inspector for 5 years. Organic product can be handled through any existing facility as long as it meets state and/or federal phytosanitary standards, and as long as it is inspected by an organic inspector, which will cost less than $1,000.

            Any other lame theories?

          • excusemebut2

            Less than $1000 eh? Wow, that is cheap.

          • It is extremely cheap. What happens is 10 or more organic farmers in an area will approach a processor about handling their harvests. I’ll let you do the math from there.

          • excusemebut2

            And segregated and marketed as organic? Really now!

            Of course they will TAKE it!

          • Exactly.

        • Ken Gallaher

          Ignore Popoff – he is a liar for hire

  • Flax never needed to be surrendered. Just look at canola, soy, corn, papaya and alfalfa. Those crops perform wonderfully for farmers and allow them to make a good profit. Why would flax be any different?


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