Monday, October 12, 2009

The relationship between Canadian Triffid flax* and sulfonylurea herbicides

*Canadian Triffid Flax a.k.a Linseed FP967 a.k.a CDC Triffid

When the winter wheat harvest needed more herbicides, farmers used sulfonylurea (which is tolerated by the strong wheat plants). Unfortunately, months later when Canadian farmers were growing flax in the same soil they found that the flax was suffering.

Soon there was an answer to all the farmers’ flax problems: genetically modified flax with sulfonylurea herbicide resistance. Developed by the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan, this new GMO flax was appropriately named Triffid (after John Wyndham’s book published in 1951, The Day of The Triffids, in which carnivorous plants from space hunt and kill humans).

Triffid was another step in the wrong direction. If it weren’t for sulfonylurea herbicides, Triffid flax would not exist. Why alter the product to suit the method?

A study by Michael Burnet and Brian Hodgson ( found that growing GMO flax has detrimental affects on soil, specifically alkaline soil. Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta all have neutral to alkaline soils. Herbicides in the sulfonylurea family break down slowly in soil with a high pH and can remain in deeper layers for months.

Although sulfonylurea herbicides are used in cereal crops - with minimal damage to the cereal - many crops grown in rotation are very sensitive to the residual herbicide.

All legume and oilseed crops are sensitive when herbicide levels are as low as 0.5 parts per billion; Just five percent of the recommended dose of sulfonylurea can seriously harm the roots of plants. This herbicide is also very mobile in water, meaning the poison is affecting more than intended.

It is not just the herbicide we need to worry about- Triffid flax was approved before thorough studies were conducted. After approving the use of Triffid flax, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) noted, “The effect on dicot crops (e.g. canola, lentils) grown in soils previously cultivated to Triffid flax has not been fully assessed.” (

Triffid flax was approved by Canadian regulators in 1998 and officially deregistered in Canada in 2001. Canada ships 70% of its flax to Europe, where concerns about genetically modified food are far more vocal. Although the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) declared Triffid safe for consumption, the European Union was not satisfied with the short amount of time the new flax was studied and refused to approve it. Concerned about jeopardizing trade, the Flax Council of Canada lobbied successfully for the Canadian government to deregister Triffid in 2001.

It is difficult to say how Triffid flax emerged, ten years after deregistration. Flax is mainly self-pollinated but around five percent of pollination occurs through insects. Thus, some websites suggest genetically modified flax is transferred to other plants, potentially reaching and contaminating non-GM flax. However, The Canadian Food Inspection Agency states that there are no wild relatives in Canada that can freely hybridize with flax (L. usitatissimum) and therefore gene flow from CDC Triffid to wild relatives is not possible in Canada.

It is possible, but still unconfirmed whether or not the genetically modified flax found in Europe was from Triffid. The Canadian Flax Council is waiting for a Canadian test to be first invented, and then will test whether or not the genetically modified flax is Triffid. A Saskatchewan Flax website adds, “Since DNA testing is extremely sensitive, and technology has improved considerably in recent years, this protocol has to be carefully developed to ensure accurate and reliable results.”

Any raw material or flax/linseed derivative analyzed to be positive for FP967/CDC Triffid is illegal and not marketable in the EU.

This all started because DuPont invented sulfonylurea. Bill Clinton himself awarded DuPont scientist, George Levitt The National Medal of Technology in 1993 for the development of sulfonylureas. At the time, they were praised as “environmentally friendly herbicides for every major food crop in the world”.

Maybe we should take a hint from the European Union. If we don’t have the technology or time to test a product, then it is not worth it!

The latest news about Canadian Flax, from the 12th of February, 2010:

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