Renegade Genetically Modified Flax Seed Is Crippling Canadian Market

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Flaxseed from Canada's prairie has been contaminated with a genetically modified seed. Photo by bdearth via Flickr.

It sounds like science fiction: A genetically modified flax seed--named after an experimental plant in a sci-fi flick--is popping up in flaxseed harvested in Canada's prairie. This might not be so strange in today's world of genetically modified foods if it weren't for one thing: The seed never made it to market and all seed was supposed to have been destroyed in 2001.

The flax mystery was brought to light in a recent article in The Globe and Mail, which revealed the contamination has prompted Europe to put a halt to imports of Canadian flax--a move that could bring the $320-million industry to its knees.A Sci-Fi Mystery Come to Life?

The genetically modified seed was named "Triffid" by Dr. Alan McHughen, the scientist who developed it at the University of Saskatchewan in the 1990s.

The name comes from John Wyndam's 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids, which was turned into a sci-fi movie in 1962; the Triffids in the book and film are experimental plants that can move around on their own and end up attacking people. As The Globe and Mail writer put it, the movie "starred a villainous breed of plants replete with legs, intelligence and a venom-filled stinger."

But Barry Hall, president of the Flax Council of Canada, is not amused by McHughen's choice of name:

[It was] a bit of black humour that Dr. McHughen threw into the mix... I'm sure he thought that he was being quite clever, but he's alone in that regard.

How Did The GM Flax Seed Get in the Fields?

The Triffid seeds were never sold for commercial purposes in Canada, but McHughen (who now works at the University of California, Riverside) did give away seeds for "educational purposes." Though there was a condition that they not be grown, McHughen told The Globe and Mail that it's possible some farmers planted the GM seed.

And the fallout could cripple the industry in Canada.

After reports emerged from Europe that Canadian flax was contaminated with a genetically modified seed, the Canadian Grain Commission tested three batches of flax and found small amount of Triffids in each; about one in 10,000 seeds were the GM Triffid seed.

Now the commission is taking on the daunting task of trying to track seed back to certain farms, in an effort to identify where the Triffid plants are being grown so they can be removed before the problem spreads.

All This for An Obsolete Seed

The Triffid seed is approved for food, feed and the environment in Canada and the United States, but that hasn't stopped Europe from blocking imports.

Farmers are understandably furious. The value of Canadian flax has plummeted on news of the contamination, down to $2 to $3 from $11. But their fury isn't centered on the EU decision to halt imports--it's aimed at the agency that approved the seed in the first place.

According to The Globe and Mail article, changes in herbicide formulations have made the genetical modification of the flax seed obsolete--so farmers are wondering why the Canadian Food Inspection Agency ever approved it.

The farmers who stand to be the hardest hit are organic farmers, because organic products must be GM-free. As Arnold Taylor, an organic flax farmer in Kenaston, Saskatchewan, told The Globe and Mail:

Our organic market is probably sabotaged because of this. Most of the consumers don't want [genetically engineered food] and there is really no need for it. We can farm very well without them.