In the waning days of fall, prairie flaxseed farmers should be hopping onto their tractors and harvesting their crops of the trendy health food, but instead they're in the midst of a major whodunit, with echoes of a long-forgotten movie thriller.
Somebody has contaminated Canada's flax crop with trace amounts of a genetically modified variety, whimsically called Triffid after a 1960s horror flick that starred a villainous breed of plants replete with legs, intelligence and a venom-filled stinger.
To keep the Triffids at bay, Europe, which is hypersensitive to all things genetically modified, has slammed the doors on further imports of flaxseed from Canada, threatening a lucrative $320-million annual market for farmers. Already prices for flax have plunged by $2 to $3 a bushel from around $11 before reports of the contamination.
Farmers are mystified about why the Triffids are showing up now. The seeds, developed at the University of Saskatchewan in the 1990s, were never sold commercially in Canada and were all supposed to have been destroyed in 2001. But seeds derived from the university's plant engineering program are being found all over Europe.
Since early September, confectionery companies there have been yanking pastries and other baked goods containing flax from their shelves, blaming imports from Canada for the contamination. The genetically modified seeds have been found in 34 countries, according to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.
The strange turn of events has prompted head scratching all around.
The developer of the seeds, Alan McHughen, now a biotechnologist at the University of California, Riverside, said he has no idea why flax plants he created years ago are now contaminating the Canadian crop. Dr. McHughen did prompt controversy by giving away packets of the seeds free of charge for what he calls "educational purposes." A condition of accepting his Triffids was to agree not to grow them, but he concedes some farmers might have thrown the seeds into their hoppers and planted them anyway. "I can't rule out that possibility," he said.
He called them Triffids because he wanted a catchy, easy-to-spell name that farmers would remember. The name 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," said Barry Hall, president of the Flax Council of Canada, the Winnipeg-based industry trade group.
Our organic market is probably sabotaged because of this Organic flax grower Arnold Taylor
Terry Boehm, a flax grower near Saskatoon and one of the approximately 15,000 prairie farmers who produce the crop, is worried about the fallout from the food scare. The cause of the contamination is "the $300-million question," he said, adding: "I really can't hazard to say how it's there, but there's a huge amount of questions that need to be answered in regard to that."
The genetic contamination also undermines the image of a product widely extolled for its health benefits as a rich source of artery-friendly omega-3 fatty acids and often grown organically to further its cachet. In organic farming, using genetically modified organisms is a big no-no.
Canadian authorities say the flax, which has genes added from a weed enabling it to withstand growing in herbicide-contaminated soil, is safe to eat. While it's illegal for plant breeders to sell the modified flax, farmers can grow it, provided they divulge that their crop has been genetically modified and accept a lower grade for it. "There are no safety concerns … because [Triffids]did pass stringent food and feed safety tests as part of the government of Canada's approval process," said Remi Gosselin, spokesman for the Canadian Grain Commission.
After reports about genetic modification began circulating in Europe, the commission - the Winnipeg-based federal regulator of the grain-handling industry - tested three flax shipments and found contamination in each. The amounts were minute - about one genetically modified seed out of every 10,000 - but enough to prompt action in Europe.
The commission is trying to track shipments of flax across the prairies to see if it can identify the farmer or farmers who trifled with Triffids. Flax farmers and the council lobbied successfully to have Triffid removed from the market in 2001. Now there is anger on the prairies that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency unnecessarily put farm incomes at risk by approving the flax in the first place. Farmers had virtually no commercial need for its herbicide-tolerant trait, which is considered obsolete because of changes in herbicide formulations.
The CFIA declined an interview request.
Arnold Taylor, an organic flax grower in Kenaston, Sask., says he fears the contamination will be found to be widespread, harming his livelihood.
"Our organic market is probably sabotaged because of this," Mr. Taylor said. "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."