The flax industry has been in turmoil since the fall of 2009, when genetically modified flax seeds were unexpectedly discovered in Canadian flax shipments to the European Union. Although the GM variety, Triffid, had been deregistered in 2001 and all Triffid seed was supposed to have been destroyed, Triffid seeds have been lingering in the system. The EU will not accept flax imports with genetically modified content, and the EU measures with a tough yardstick. Canadian exports must contain less than 0.01 per cent GM content — that’s less than one seed in 10,000 seeds.
Since 2009, the Canadian flax industry has co-operated to calm this turmoil and get Canadian exports flowing to European buyers again. The main push has been the testing of pedigreed seed, farm-saved seed and on-farm production for the presence of Triffid. Since this program started, the percentage of farmer deliveries testing positive for Triffid contamination has fallen from 10 per cent in 2009-10 to around four per cent in the summer of 2013. And, the level of Triffid in the positive tests has fallen to close to the allowable level of 0.01 per cent.
Researchers at the Crop Development Centre have spent long hours in the lab to reconstitute two of the flax varieties that have been the most popular in the past: CDC Bethune and CDC Sorrel. (Originally, there had been plans to add “14” after the names of these two varieties next year to indicate that they’ve been reconstituted. That plan has gone by the wayside.)
Both Bethune and Sorrel varieties are distributed by SeCan. Before the Triffid issue, says Todd Hyra, SeCan’s business manager for Western Canada, “Bethune and Sorrel were the two market leaders.” Together, these two varieties made up about 75 per cent of the market.
SeCan will also have two new GM-free varieties on the market in 2014: CDC Sanctuary and CDC Glas.
In order to ensure that these new varieties have not been contaminated by Triffid at any point in the system, seed growers multiplying the new varieties for SeCan had to sign stringent agreements. When farmers are talking to SeCan seed growers about these new varieties, Hyra recommends that they “ask about the process the grower went through.” There were strict rules about the distance between the seed flax and commercial flax crops and the number of years that the land where the seed flax was grown had been flax-free.
“The distance and the time away from older production is an important part of that. That’s something we incorporated into the stewardship protocol,” Hyra says.
Hyra is not yet sure which of these four varieties will be farmers’ best bet. “A lot will depend on what the trials show,” he says. Trial information will be available later in the fall.
With Sanctuary and Glas being new varieties, Hyra expects that they will be picked up quickly. “They’ll be the first ones to sell out, I’m sure,” he says. “The supplies are better on Sorrel.”
“All of these have been in tests for the last while. In terms of overall yield, they’re very similar. Each one offers a slightly different benefit.”
“Sorrel has the largest seed. That makes harvest easier. But Sanctuary will fit in the drier areas.”
Glas is a higher yielder overall, with strong straw. However, it has a bit smaller seed.
“Each one’s got it’s fit,” says Hyra.
Not all flax seed varieties needed to be reconstituted.
“The Crop Development Centre varieties are the ones that were reconstituted,” says Linda Braun, executive director of SaskFlax. Seed from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and Viterra breeding programs didn’t come down through the same breeding pool, and were never contaminated “Any certified seed from any of those other sources was fine. They’ve always tested negative,” Braun says.
SaskFlax is confident that seed supplies will be strong for 2014, and that there will be enough seed available for the organization to meet its goal of one million acres of flax seeded in Saskatchewan next spring.
Braun says SaskFlax was happy with the way the industry co-operated in the wake of the 2009 GM incident. “We’re quite happy,” Braun says. “It’s been a long process.”
With the EU’s tolerance level set near zero, ensuring that all traces of Triffid flax are completely removed from the system will be a challenge. Hyra believes it’s a challenge the industry can meet. The amazing thing is, the whole industry’s been really cooperative on this one.”
To make sure the system can be successfully rebooted, Hyra says, “everybody along the way has taken their lumps.” This included seed growers and farmers who had saved flax seed for their own use. “SeCan seedgrowers had to dump seed stock of old supply and old breeder seed.”
To make sure that no Triffid-infected seed finds it’s way into the system, Hyra says, “the final push has got to be farmer-to-farmer.”
For 2014, Braun says, “the farm stewardship program will still take effect. We still have to test that flax before going into the ground if you’re not using certified seed.” This program will be in place for at least another couple of years, Braun says, “to ensure our buyers that the protocol is being followed.” †