In summer 2009, European officials tested two cargoes of Canadian flax seed and discovered genetically modified material. Even before the German chapter of Greenpeace could hold media events – waving ‘Achtung Gen-food!’ signs in grocery stores – it was game over.
At the time, Europe bought about 70% of the 800,000 tonnes grown on the Prairies each year. Orders plunged, and so did prices, falling by one-third in a matter of weeks.
Everyone was stunned. After all, the only GM flax, unfortunately called Triffid (a name popularized by a 1950s sci-fi novel about genetically engineered, man-eating plants) had only been grown in small quantities for seed production in the 1990s, was never sold for commercial production, and was believed to have long since been purged from the system.
But to be on the safe side, the Crop Development Centre tested the seed of its breeder’s lines.
“We tested to the 0.1% level for presence of Triffid DNA in the breeders’ seed and they didn’t find anything,” recalls flax breeder and assistant professor Helen Booker.
“By Christmas, labs were able to test to the 0.01% level and in January 2010, we sent the breeders’ seeds for further testing and that’s when – how do I put it? – the bacon hit the frying pan.”
Others would use much stronger language when they heard the disastrous news. CDC varieties accounted for 87% of seeded flax acreage on the Prairies, home to nearly half the world’s flax production. With super-sensitive testing – one seed in 60,000 was all it took – Triffid was turning up everywhere. It was only trace amounts, but that was irrelevant, says Booker.
“In the end, the quantity doesn’t really matter – zero means zero,” she says.
Stuffing the genie back in the bottle would require a massive and unprecedented effort, involving Booker and her team, SeCan (the country’s largest supplier of certified seed), and seed growers both here and in New Zealand.
It’s a tale with a loaves-and-fishes element: Archival samples of two leading varieties (CDC Bethune and CDC Sorrel) and two new ones (CDC Sanctuary and CDC Glas) were chosen to be ‘reconstituted.’ The task was to turn this tiny amount of seed into enough to sow 1.5 million acres, the pre-Triffid acreage, by 2014. That’s roughly four trillion seeds.
And to regain the European market (exports are still down more than 90%), not one of those four trillion seeds could be genetically modified. Not only would the archival samples have to be purged of any GM contamination, but there would have to be rigorous and extensive testing at every stage as the breeder’s lines were multiplied. No chances could be taken.
In order to meet their 2014 deadline, the new purified lines would be multiplied during the Canadian winter in New Zealand (where no GM flax had ever been grown), and then handed over to a carefully chosen seed grower near Delisle, southwest of Saskatoon, come spring.
“It was a century farm and he had never grown flax before,” notes Booker. “As well, he didn’t allow people on his farm or use custom contractors. It was as clean a site as could be found in Saskatchewan.”
The initial testing on plants grown in CDC’s plant chambers in the summer of 2010 was conducted by a private Saskatoon lab, Quantum Biosciences. But given the number of tests required, the centre needed its own facility.
Lester Young, a former U of S post-doctoral fellow, was hired to set up the testing facility in the new genotyping lab on campus. Equipped with a new real-time PCR machine (which amplifies and detects DNA), Young was responsible for ramping up testing to unheard-of levels. The test requires germinating seeds and testing their DNA. Prior to this crisis, 24 tissue tests were once considered a full day’s work, but this was no longer nearly enough.
“We wanted to look at all the different lines that had gone through our nursery so we could say we’d tested everything and that any new varieties registered by CDC were free of Triffid,” says Young. “That meant testing thousands of lines.”
In this case, a line means a single progeny row consisting of about 200 plants. In 2011, three single plants were selected from each progeny row for multiplying and two seeds from each of those plants were germinated and their tissue tested for the presence of the Triffid genetic marker. In 2012, 10 seeds were taken from each single plant selection, and their DNA extracted and tested.
In short, Young was one busy guy.
“In 2011, we tested about 11,000 lines and this year, we looked at close to 16,000 lines,” says Young. “We had to be sure.”
It was a Herculean effort, one accomplished with heads-down, just-keep-going determination. It was only when the reconstituted breeder’s lines came back from a second multiplying winter in New Zealand that Booker breathed a sigh of relief.
“I felt pretty proud at that moment,” she says. “We had 40,000 kilograms of breeders’ seeds sitting on pallets and that’s when I thought, ‘Wow. We started with 150 plants.’”
The precious store of seed was distributed to pedigree seed growers this spring and everything is on track for the widespread release of transgene-free flax seed in 2014.
It has been a long, arduous and costly road back, says Booker, but the lessons learned go far beyond the flax sector.
“I think this is an historic event and also a wake-up call to other sectors, such as wheat, that are considering going GMO,” she says.
“With canola, they were very careful to assess offshore markets before seed production began. But flax was one of the first crops to be genetically modified and that just wasn’t thought of then. So that’s the message: Think about what might happen down the road.”
Once reconstituted lines are available, Prairie flax growers will try to regain their European customers, who have turned to Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine for supplies. That, too, will be a big job, but Booker is optimistic.
“I would like to see Western Canada’s flax acreage up to three million,” she says. “Then we can break out the champagne.”