Science in Society Archive

The Day of the Triffid in Transgene Contamination

Transgenic flax grown for several years in Canada has nevertheless contaminated probably the country’s entire flax seed stock; that’s why flax should never be used to produce transgenic industrial and pharmaceutical chemicals. Prof. Joe Cummins

Transgene contamination of flax seed

Flax seed is used widely in the food industry, including bread, and as source of omega 3 fatty acids. On 10 September 2009, the European Union (EU) Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) reported finding an unapproved genetically modified (GM) flax/linseed variety in cereal and bakery products in Germany. The GM flax variety, FP967 (CDC Triffid), is not authorized for food or feed in the EU; it has tolerance to soil residues of sulfonylurea-based herbicides, and was developed by the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. Canada supplies approximately 70 percent of the total flax/linseed in the EU annually. Because GM flax FP967 is not authorized in the European Union, there is zero tolerance for the variety. That means any raw material or flax/linseed derivative analyzed to be positive for FP967 is illegal and not marketable in the EU. The test for the genetic modification of Triffid flax  was developed by Genetic ID  Laboratories in USA and Europe [1].

The ‘Triffid’ is a highly venomous fictional plant species, the titular antagonist from John Wyndham's 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids. The University of Saskatchewan appears to have used that great novel as a model for its GM creation.

Triffid yanked off seed market in 2001

The discovery of Triffid gene contamination in Canadian flax exports is surprising because Triffid flax seed has not been openly produced in Canada since 2001. Triffid was deregulated over a decade ago in Canada for environmental release for feed in 1996 and for food in 1998.  USA authorized the release of Triffid for food and feed in 1998, and for commercial growth in the environment in 1999 [2]. Triffid has been grown in the open fields in both Canada and US. But by early 2001, under pressure from Canadian flax growers anxious to protect their markets, Triffid was deregistered and removed from the market in Canada. By then, around 200 000 bushels of Triffid flax seed had been grown on farms across the prairies [3].

Why is Triffid in flax exports?

Triffid has probably contaminated most North American flax exports including 'organic' flax because the crop is significantly insect pollinated. Why has the GM contamination escaped careful scrutiny in Europe during those years of flax export? One explanation may be partly technical. The herbicides tolerated by Triffid flax are sulphonylurea derivatives and the genes transforming flax are not the usual genes used to produce herbicide tolerant crops. The promoter and terminator genes are native from the plant source of resistant genes Arabidopsis. What I am saying is that is that Triffid is a University of Saskatchewan product and does not employ the usual large company genes and that may be a reason they were not detected earlier.

Sulphonylurea herbicide resistance was selected for development because  that herbicide family is used  to control weeds of winter wheat  which tolerates the herbicide  but the herbicides persist in the soil  preventing crop rotation with broad leafed crops such as flax [4, 5]. Prior to  the approval of Trffid by Canada  in 1995,  the creators of Triffid, Professors McHuhen and Holm, chastised the government regulators for asking scientifically irrelevant question [6].  The current problem with Triffid suggests that the government regulators may have been badgered into arriving at a faulty conclusion.

Transgenic flax for industrial chemicals and pharmaceuticals

During the past decade, there has been a lot of pressure to produce pharmaceutical products and industrial plastics precursors in flax so as to avoid polluting 'major' food and feed crops. This is being promoted by the usual GM brigade. Such mindless pollution of flax fails to recognize the crop’s natural dietary and medicinal properties. The main objection to the use of transgenic flax to produce industrial chemicals and  pharmaceuticals is that even though flax  is mainly self pollinated it is also significantly insect pollinated (to the order of five percent or more of the pollination [7-9]).  Gene flow from flax occurs to wild and weedy relatives that include several species native to North America as well as feral agronomic flax [10].

The detection of transgenic flax Triffid in Canadian imports for food and feed in Europe is disturbing because the production of Triffid flax was officially discontinued in 2001. The implication is that the entire Canadian flax crop may have been contaminated by exposure to the  genetically modified crop during the five years in which 200 000 bushels of  Triffid flax were produced and marketed in North America. The current problems with Triffid flax demonstrates most emphatically that flax is not suitable for producing transgenic industrial and pharmaceutical chemicals.

Article first published 23/09/09


  1. CheckBiotech Specific test now available for recently detected unauthorized GM flax/linseed variety FP967 (CDC Triffid) Thursday, September 10, 2009
  2. Agbios GM Database CDC-FL001-2(FP967)  Flax,Linseed CDC Triffid 2009
  3. Warick J.  GM Flax Seed Yanked Off Canadian Market Rounded Up, Crushed 2001 ,
  4. McHughen A. Petition 98-335-01p USDA Petition for determination of nonregulated status 7 CFR 340-6 CDC Triffid  1998
  5. Canadian Food Inspection Agency Plant Health and Production Division, Plant Biosafety Offic e Plant Health and Production Division,Plant Biosafety Office Decision Document 98-24: Determination of the Safety of the Crop Development Centre's 'CDC Triffid', a Flax (Linum usitatissimum L.)  Variety Tolerant to Soil Residues of Triasulfuron and Metsulfuron-methyl 1998,
  6. McHughen A, Holm R.  Just the  Flax. Bio/Technology 1995, 13, 926
  7. Cummins J. The facts on flax. Nature Biotechnology 2002, 2, 803.
  8. McGregor, S. Insect Pollination of Cultivated Crop Plants. (US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, USA, 1976).
  9. US Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Fed. Reg. 64, 28794--29795 (1999).
  10. Jhalaa J, Halla L, Hallc J.j Potential hybridization of flax with weedy and wild relatives: an avenue form of engineered genes? Crop Science 2008, 48, 825-840.

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There are 9 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

joe cummins Comment left 29th September 2009 16:04:22
A recent article ,CDC Triffid Flax Scare Threatens Access To No. 1 EU Market by Allan Dawson Manitoba Co-operator, September 17 2009 quotes one of the creators of Trippid. I am concerned with the quote 'McHughen said the EU can’t say for sure it has found CDC Triffid because there are other GM flax genotypes (none grown commercially) and the EU doesn’t have information on them, he said.' I have been unable to locate any field test releases of GM flax other than Triffid in Canada or USA even though such reports are mandatory. McHughen's cryptic comment implies that unreported field tests of GM flax were done in Canada. Regarding the carry over of Trifid in the field plantings reported currently , it is worth pointing out that flax seeds are frequently saved by farmers and the GM flax genes will achieve equilibrium over time in the population that they pollute. Those genes may even be selected and increased in the flax population by growing the polluted flax in rotation with wheat that has been treated with sulphonylurea herbicides which persist in the soil.

amicus curiae Comment left 16th October 2009 00:12:01
I also am extremely concerned, I almost planted flax seed from store bought stock in Australia, how can anyone know it isn,t contaminated? Until now I never knew, read or saw any suggestion that Flax had been Gm contaminated.

Joe Cummins Comment left 16th October 2009 00:12:09
Replying to RAUL DELGADO HERNANDEZ:According to the Flax Council of Canada Mexico is a strong importer of Canadian flax for use in a variety of manufactured and homemade foods such as tortilla shells, breads and cereals. Mexico does not grow flax commercially and food manufacturers typically import flax and flax products from Canada. In Mexico Canadian flax is fed to chickens to produce omega 3 fatty acid containing eggs.In Spanish, flax is linaza

RAUL DELGADO HERNANDEZ Comment left 4th October 2009 19:07:14
I would like to know the translation of the transgenic flax. and if it is imported by mexico regards

David Russell Comment left 27th September 2009 05:05:22
Here we go again! As a Canadian i am embarassed by this. As someone who tries to maintain a healthy diet (I haven't used canola oil for at least 10yrs) I now will have to stop consuming flax, including flax bread and dietary suplements that include flax oil. I live in a rural community (village pop.

joe cummins Comment left 16th October 2009 00:12:14
In reply to RAUL DELGADO HERNANDEZ: According to the Canadian Flax Council Mexico is a strong importer of Canadian flax for use in a variety of manufactured and homemade foods such as tortilla shells, breads and cereals. Mexico does not grow flax commercially and food manufacturers typically import flax and flax products from Canada. In Mexico flax may be called Linaza.

meredith lloyd-evans Comment left 7th February 2010 04:04:43
wouldn't be surprised if this wasn't some dirty tricks by an anti-Gm non-Governmental Organisation, adding a secret store of Triffid flax-seed to a non-GM shipment...... I might change my mind if someone independent goes and collects flax seed from Canada's prairies and shows it's Triffid-positive.

Marie Comment left 17th February 2010 00:12:48
What are the side effects of ingesting contaminated flax seed. I have been ingesting flax for at least 4 years every day.Since sept 09 i have been having health issues. have had all test possible with no results of why. could this be due to infected flax seed?

The ACTivist magazine Comment left 18th April 2010 01:01:24
According to the Canadian government: "FP967 or CDC Triffid, was developed in the 1990s by the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan." As is mentioned here, The "triffid" is a highly venomous fictional plant species, the titular antagonist from John Wyndham's 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids. In this novel, the main character Bill Masen declares that Triffids are not natural: "My own belief, for what that is worth, is that they were the outcome of a series of ingenious biological meddlings--and very likely accidental, at that. Had they been evolved anywhere but in the region they were, we should doubtless have had a well-documented ancestry for them." Why would researchers and developers of transgenic germplasm choose to name their "creation" after something from a science fiction novel that warns of "biological meddlings"? Does anyone out there find this extremely odd? It doesn't seem like a very good way to get one's product to market.