No border blockade for Canadian flax

FARGO, N.D. -- The North Dakota State Seed Department has denied a request by the Dakota Resource Council to block Canadian flax and flaxseed at the border because of potential contamination with genetically modified seed.

FARGO, N.D. -- The North Dakota State Seed Department has denied a request by the Dakota Resource Council to block Canadian flax and flaxseed at the border because of potential contamination with genetically modified seed.

Ken Bertsch, state seed commissioner, says he consulted with the North Dakota attorney general's office in rejecting a request by the DRC to stop imports under NDCC 4-09-06 to "enforce a stop-sale order on Canadian origin flax seed, and prevent any further sale, conditioning or movement of such seed."

"What we can do, legally, is nothing," Bertsch says of the issue.

He says the GMO event that the DRC is concerned about is deregulated in the U.S., and unless the seed is mislabeled, there is no issue.

Todd Leake, an Emerado, N.D., farmer and food safety task force chairman with the DRC, was concerned about the so-called "Triffid flax," which Bertsch describes as a variety that contains a genetic modification event called FP967. The event allows tolerance to sulfonylurea. The DRC made the same requests to North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring.


Testing for Triffid

In a separate but related development, however, Bertsch says within the next several weeks his department will develop its own ability to test for the Triffid modification so that it can conduct accurate tests for the presence of the GM event if it wants to. The lab in early April acquired the "positive controls" from the Canadian government that are officially free of the GM event, so that the test can be verified.

Meantime, the seed department has referred any seed producers or farmers concerned about the issue to seven North American laboratories that could verify whether seed contains the GM characteristic.

Leake says Canadian exports plummeted last fall but have since rebounded some after the EU and Canada a rigorous testing protocol. The DRC is concerned that if Canadian seed comes into the U.S. that U.S. flax producers also might lose access to European Union markets.

Glenn Pizzey, corporate development manager for J.G. Pizzey Inc. of Angusville, Manitoba, and a member of the research and technical committee of the Flax Council of Canada, attended the recent International Flax Institute in Fargo.

Pizzey says the modification is accepted technology in the U.S., and was deregulated in both countries, so it is in fact legal to grow it in either country, even though the industry has worked to "delicense" and retrieve the technology.

Pizzey says the modification was approved in the 1990s before flaxseed rose in prominence as a food ingredient. While the Triffid variety was developed to help with herbicide applications, the Canadian Flax Council grew concerned that the GM aspect would create "pushback in Europe" and its important markets.

"Even though some of this material had been multiplied by seed growers, we had it all retrieved and crushed, and gotten rid of, and it was supposedly crushed for oil, in Fargo, here," Pizzey says.


Any evidence of the event had disappeared until April 2009, when a Canadian flax shipment to Europe tested positive for this GM trait. The problem is with the EU's "very, very low detection level." Pizzey says.

The EU at first stopped Canadian flax imports completely. As a consequence, some experts believe more Canadian flax moved into the U.S. Canadian flax is generally high in oil and so-called omega-3 content, which offers some health benefits. Nevertheless, the incident has lowered the price of flax at the farm gate, which is part of a global decline in oilseed values, Pizzey says.

European industrial oil manufacturers are the largest customers for flaxseed in the world and have been sourcing it from Eastern Europe, but at premiums while Canadian shipments were on hold.

Helen Booker, assistant professor of plant sciences, University of Saskatchewan-Saskatoon, who also attended the Flax Institute, says the problem with the Triffid event was that it never was approved in the European market, and there are no tolerances for it.

Booker, who breeds flax, says that earlier this spring the Flax Council of Canada required any planting seed in country be tested for Triffid and a certificate issued to the grower as evidence of that GM test being before any of the buyers in the country will accept delivery in the fall. If the grain tests positive in the fall, the companies will sell the grain in North America.

Not an isolated issue

Booker says that Triffid was tested in Kernen Research Station in Saskatchewan where the province does nurseries and yield trials.

"We have to assume that there is some contamination there," she says. "What we propose to do is 'reboot' our breeder seed. The protocol requires grinding 60-gram samples, which represents about 10,000 seeds. Then you extract DNA from a ground sample. Then you run a polymerase chain reaction, which amplifies any molecules of DNA similar to the piece within the transgene. That can be detected."


Pizzey says there is such an exchange of flax material between Canada and the U.S. that it's "not just an isolated Canadian issue" and with "more testing, it'll already be an issue in North Dakota," he thinks.

"Flax moves into Canada as well as the other way around," Pizzey says. "We know there's North Dakotans that export into Canada to access the Canadian rail system," he says. "I think if there's contamination of the Canadian product, if we look long enough, we'd already find this contamination in the U.S. product."

Pizzey says trade barriers aren't the solution and notes that "what's driving this crop forward, in large part, is Canadian research."

Booker expresses doubt that there are science-based solutions, and says that there perhaps need to be political solutions.

Pizzey notes that the industry would harm itself to eliminate Canadian supplies. Flax is still a small food ingredient component and if end-users don't have a reliable supply, they'll "discontinue their involvement in flax."

Ernie Hoffert, general manager at Reimers Seed Co. in Carrington, N.D., who also attended the Flax Institute, agrees.

"I wouldn't want to see the border closed," Hoffert says. "In the short run, it might drive the price of North Dakota flax (upward), but the industry needs critical mass and volume. It would ruin the industry."

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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