Seed packets spread GM flax: Schmeiser

The man who has travelled the world telling anyone who will listen about the dangers of genetically modified canola contamination has a theory about how a GM flax variety may have entered Canada’s handling system.

European labs have detected CDC Triffid, a herbicide tolerant GM flax variety, in food products in at least 30 countries.

Canada’s flax industry and government officials say the proof of contamination is inconclusive.

They are struggling to understand how a variety that never made it beyond seed grower hands could be showing up in Europe.

But Percy Schmeiser thinks he knows and he is pointing the finger at the developer of CDC Triffid, Alan McHughen.

“What really caused a stir was when he had come out with packages of this flax to the various schools in (Saskatchewan),” said Schmeiser.

McHughen distributed small coin envelopes containing about 145 seeds of CDC Triffid in 2000, one year before he voluntarily deregistered the GM flax variety at the behest of the flax industry, which feared losing the European market if the variety were commercialized.

After growers complained about him distributing the seed packets and the head of the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre asked him to stop, McHughen agreed to sterilize the seeds but continued distributing the packets to people interested in seeing what a GM seed looked like.

Schmeiser believes those early packets are the source of what is showing up in Europe.

“I believe it was fully from this flax he was giving out that did the contamination,” said the Bruno, Sask., farmer who became famous when the Supreme Court of Canada found him guilty of infringing on Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola patent, although the court didn’t require him to pay damages.

McHughen did not respond to an interview request in time for this article.

But Barry Hall, president of the Flax Council of Canada, is skeptical about Schmeiser’s claim.

“I wouldn’t put a whole lot of stock in that. But hell, we don’t know. It’s one theory,” he said.

Hall has no idea how many seed packets McHughen distributed or where they ended up but he said it would take a considerable effort to multiply 145 seeds into a volume that could disrupt trade with Europe.

Terry Boehm, vice-president of the National Farmers Union and long-time opponent of GM crops, said he has no idea if the source of contamination could be a small packet of seeds but pointed out that it’s not out of the question.

“We all know the story of Polish canola. Supposedly somebody brought a little handful of it over and cultivated it and grew it and nursed it along. So I suppose anything is possible,” he said.

The National Research Council of Canada’s Plant Biotechnology Institute and DNA Landmarks Inc. anticipate a definitive test for detecting CDC Triffid available by Oct. 15, 2009. That protocol will then have to be validated by appropriate labs. The Flax Council says the test will be used to determine once and for all whether Triffid has tainted Canada’s supplies.

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