The day of the Triffid flax

Archive news - November 2009 (Please note links may no longer be active)

Triffid genes have been found contaminating imported flax in Europe, where they risk contaminating cereal, bakery goods, bread and omega-3 fatty acid supplements.

On September 8, 2009, the EU issued a Rapid Action Alert closely followed by four others when a German food processing company detected GM genes in its products. Contaminated shipments may have been distributed to 10 EU countries and 28 countries world-wide.

Triffid flax is not legal for food use anywhere, including its country of origin, Canada. After what was poised to be a very good year for Canadian flax farmers, sales of the seed have collapsed, causing serious financial hardship.

The GM flax, fancifully named Triffid, was transformed for tolerance to sulfonylurea-based herbicides which persist in the soil. The purpose of the novel variety was to allow a crop rotation of flax and winter wheat where weeds are routinely controlled with sulfonylurea derivatives lethal to conventional flax.

Triffid was developed in the 1990s, approved for feed in 1996 and for food use in 1998 in Canada, closely followed by authorisation in the USA. The crop was grown in open fields at this time. However, under pressure from flax growers anxious to protect their European markets which import about 70% of the harvest, Triffid was deregistered and removed from the market in Canada in early 2001, at which time further research was abandoned. Before it was halted however, 40 farmers across the Prairies were already growing 200,000 bushels of GM flax seed ready for marketing

The incident is highlighting the difficulties in tracking GM crops once they have been in the field:

  • The gene has gone undetected for eight years. Because the novel genes in Triffid are not the common ones found in other herbicide-tolerant crops, routine DNA testing didn't show up the contamination. As genetic engineers dream up more sophisticated artificial DNA, and introduce pharmaceutical and industrial chemicals into food crops, the problems of identification can only get worse.
  • The globalised free market means flax from anywhere can wind up anywhere by circuitous routes difficult to track. EU rules mean that imported seed can be passed between EU countries, disguising its Canadian origin, and avoiding the suspicion which would lead to testing.
  • The Canadian Seed Growers Association has a record of every grower who produced Triffid seed, how much they produced and where, but the trail has been complicated by several factors:
  • For example - the recall in 2001 was voluntary and may have been incomplete
  • For example - packets of seed were handed out by the Triffid's developer in the early days
  • For example - farmers have a habit of using farm-saved flax seed and holding back seed from year to year in the hope of a better price which would keep GM flax in the system once the contamination started
  • For example - conventional flax doesn't outcross easily, nor is it a competitive volunteer; however in sulphonylurea-contaminated areas these characteristics might tend to promote survival of the GM version.
At the end of the day 8 years on, no one's certain how much of what may have been grown where or by whom. “Everybody's relying on 10-year memory or files they can or can't find” (Canadian Seed Growers Association”)

Flax is also grown in the EU and, worryingly, it has been reported that home-grown crops are also contaminated, all the way from Canada.

The big warning here is that any notion of the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops is a nonsense. Despite the very brief time the crop was grown, the fact that full-scale commercial production was never achieved, and the fact that flax is mainly self-pollinated, the Triffid has emerged throughout the world eight years later.

The future plans of the GM brigade include the development of GM flax to produce pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals, the excuse being that it will avoid the risk of polluting a 'major' food or feed crop. As the current contamination incident demonstrates, this threatens the crop's valuable natural dietary and medicinal properties.

GM Freeze has reported that the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) is claiming “there are no grounds for issuing a food alert” and has failed to take any action. This seems to “echo their past handling of GM contamination incidents ... the FSA appear to be waiting for someone else to tell them where the GM flax is before they will act.” So much for the body which “is supposed to promote and protect consumer safety.”


Let's hope our food protection agency can act faster when the GM pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals start appearing in our food. Rather than just crossing your fingers, why don't you suggest to the FSA that it uses the current illegal flax in your food as a practice run for the next big GM contamination scare.


Illegal GM contaminates flax – UK fails to respond, GM Freeze Press Release, 14.09.09
Illegal GM flax in 10 EU countries? - FSA still fails to act in UK, GM Freeze Press Release, 23.09.09
Illegal GM Flax Contaminates Canadian Exports,, 10.09.09
The Day of the Triffid in Transgene Contamination, Institute of Science in Society Report, 23.09.09
Stephanie Dearing, Canada's GM contaminated flax has now been found in 28 countries, 6.10.09
Allan Dawson, CDC Triffid Flax Scare Threatens Access to No.1 EU Market, Manitoba Co-operator, 17.09.09
Allan Dawson, Changes Likely for Flax Industry, Manitoba Co-operator, 24.09.09

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