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The future of flax

Flax acres were up in 2012. With breeding programs focused on higher-yielding varieties, more flax might fit in your future rotations

This year Canadian farmers seeded over one million flax acres, well above the 695,000 acres planted last year, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

“In terms of the market, I think we could easily support a two or three time growth in acreage before we would bump up against severe problems in the marketplace,” says Will Hill, president of the Flax Council of Canada.

Flax destinations

Right now most of Canada’s flax goes to the industrial market, where it’s used in linoleum, paint, and printing ink. Traits such as high omega-3 and fibre content make flax a desired food additive, too.

“We’re still probably about 75 per cent industrial use for flax, but the 25 per cent of the food market is the fastest growing part,” says Hill.

Most varieties can be used for the food and industrial markets. Golden varieties are used more in the food market, Hill says, because consumers like the lighter colour. But the varieties with golden seed have the same properties as those with brown seed.

In 2008-09 Europe imported 80 per cent of Canada’s flaxseed, according to the Canadian Grain Commission. Since traces of Triffid, the deregistered genetically modified variety, were found in shipments, Canada’s exports to Europe have dropped drastically. Hill estimates Europe will buy less than five per cent of this year’s crop. Canadian flax is now testing at practically zero for genetically modified flax, Hill says.

Since Triffid curtailed exports to Europe, China and the United States have picked up the slack. China uses flax oil for industrial purposes and as a blended food oil. Hill says China’s consumers are just starting to look at flax as an omega-3 source.

India is also a potential market. Though the country grows a substantial amount of its own flax and tends to put tariffs on imported oil, Hill says awareness of flax’s health benefits are growing there, too.

“We’ll likely see them, over time, develop that market and probably have a need for imports,” says Hill.

Dr. Mike Deyholos is a researcher with the Total Utilization Flax Genetics project. Deyholos and his colleagues recently sequenced the flax genome.

Deyholos is also working with the Europeans on using flax fiber for composites. Deyholos says there is interest in using flax in fiberglass. Flax fibre composites can also be used in products such as bicycle frames. Deyholos says researchers still need to work out the precise characteristics needed for ideal fibre composites before variety work can begin.

“But (with) broader use in car body parts and things like that, there is a little bit of a chicken and egg problem… no one really wants to invest in it until they know there’s a reliable supply. And no one wants to develop a reliable supply until they know there’s a market.”

Better varieties needed

Before flax acres can grow, flax breeders need to develop better varieties.

“Our primary challenge on flax is yield. It just hasn’t kept up with canola and even some of the cereals in terms of yield… we’ve always relied on price to get the acreage in the ground, and with other suppliers supplying Europe, we really have to improve the agronomic performance of flax,” says Hill.

Hill says flax breeding programs are focusing on higher yielding varieties. The existing CDC varieties are also being rebuilt to make sure they’re Triffid-free, and Hill says they’ll be available in 2014.

The Flax Council is also working with Cibus Global to develop a non-transgenic, glyphosate-tolerant variety to improve weed control. Hill hopes to see the glyphosate-tolerant variety rolled out by 2017, if all goes well.

Flax breeders can also speed up traditional plant breeding methods by using the flax genome.

“Having the flax genome allows us to make up a lot of time in doing a couple things. One is getting a really good genetic map so we can find molecular markers that are associated with some of the traits and different kinds of elite germplasm and combine them. That’s probably the fastest route to variety improvement,” says Deyholos.

Breeders can also generate random mutations, map the mutations, and then find plants that contain desirable mutations.

The right agronomic practices can help boost yield, too. Seeding flax into canola stubble drops yields, and adding more phosphorus won’t help.

Though flax isn’t as affected by bad fall weather as some other crops, Hill says seeding late robs yield. Tests done in Manitoba show that flax seeded on June 20 yields 52 per cent less than early-seeded flax. Newly emerged flax plants can withstand temperatures as low as -3 C, so early seeding is usually the best option.

Hill sees several agronomic benefits to including flax in a rotation. Flax tends to be low input, making it a low risk crop. It yields very well following wheat, and it could also help farmers lengthen rotations, reducing herbicide and pesticide problems.

“I think we really have to get the flax yield up. And if we could accomplish that, then I think flax would fit very, very well into the rotation as an alternative oilseed,” says Hill. †

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.



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