Flax industry nearing pre-Triffid state

CDC Triffid shares its name with that of a star-forming nebula in deep space, and of a venomous mutant plant from a well-known 1951 British science fiction novel, 1962 film and (shown here) 2009 BBC TV mini-series, The Day of the Triffids. (BBC.co.uk)

CNS Canada — The Canadian flax industry is heading back to the same state seen before Europe banned Canadian flax imports after finding unapproved genetically-modified varieties in some shipments in 2009.

“We’re putting the Triffid event behind us, and I think growers have responded appropriately,” said William Hill, president of the Canadian Flax Council. And now we’re getting that acreage back to that two million-acre mark.”

The “Triffid event” refers to the unexpected appearance of genetics from a deregistered, never-commercialized, genetically-modified flax variety, CDC Triffid, in exports to the European Union in 2009.

Bred at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre for tolerance to soil residues of sulfonylurea herbicides, Triffid got regulatory approval for release in 1998, but was deregistered in 2001 over fears of the loss of export markets if a GMO flax was introduced.

The discovery of Triffid genetics in flax exports to the GMO-shy EU sent Canadian flax exports spiralling to an all-time low by 2011. Flax growers have since had their planting seed tested in a bid to flush any lingering Triffid genetics from the flax supply chain.

Today, a strong price relationship compared to other crops is helping to encourage increased acres, while demand is also slowly getting back to pre-Triffid levels.

Prairie Ag Hotwire data shows old-crop flax prices range from $13.80 to $14.75 per bushel as of late April, up $1.50 to $3 a bushel from month-ago levels. New-crop prices come in at $10.50 to $12.00 a bushel.

“We have some problems in Eastern Europe, which is our major competitor for the crop in Europe. And movement has been good on flax,” Hill said.

“We’re building back to the demand base that we had prior to 2009 in Triffid. So, we’re holding up very, very well relative to other crops.”

Strong demand continues to come from the U.S., while China has also been a noted buyer of Canadian flax this year and the demand from Europe is slowly coming back.

According to Statistics Canada’s planting intentions report released last Thursday (April 24), Canadian farmers plan to seed 1.72 million acres of flax this spring, up significantly from the 1.04 million seeded last year. The last time acres were higher was in 2006, when farmers seeded close to two million acres, Statistics Canada data shows.

That seeded area is attainable as long as prices remain favourable, and will likely get seeded this spring, Hill said. There is plenty of seed around and the late spring probably won’t be a problem for the crop.

“Flax does tend to hold up a little better in bad weather in the fall, so it has tended to be, in the past, a bit of a late-seeded crop anyways,” Hill said. “So the lateness of the spring that’s happening here should not have an impact on that number.”

As long as the price relationship holds, and demand from China and the U.S. remains strong, it won’t be long until farmers are back to seeding two million acres or more to flax, Hill said.

“We only have another 250,000 acres to go, which would be another maybe a 10 or 15 per cent increase above this level,” he said. “We’re getting good response out of Alberta, and even in Manitoba where we’ve had a lot of competition from soybeans and corn.”

Most of the flax grown in Western Canada is in Saskatchewan, with farmers in the province planting 1.48 million acres this spring. Manitoba farmers are expected to seed 120,000 acres, with 115,000 being planted in Alberta.

— Terryn Shiells writes for Commodity News Service Canada, a Winnipeg company specializing in grain and commodity market reporting.


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