Flax council, Cibus team on herbicide-tolerant traits

U.S. crop trait development firm Cibus has signed on for an alliance with the Flax Council of Canada to work on non-transgenic (that is, non-genetically modified) flax traits.

San Diego-based Cibus is to use its Rapid Trait Development System (RTDS) to develop traits that will improve yields and yield healthier oils for consumers “without jeopardizing access to Europe, the world’s biggest flax market,” the company said in a release Thursday.

The yield improvement is expected to come through development of non-genetically modified (GM) varieties with traits for herbicide tolerance.

The alliance will be supported in part by $4 million the federal government pledged to the flax council in February for this type of varietal research.

Cibus’ RTDS confers new traits on seed through mutagenesis, which changes a plant’s genetic makeup through the natural process of gene repair — rather than introducing genetics from other species, as is usually the case in genetic modification of crops.

Seed traits developed using mutagenesis are exempt from the European Union’s directives restricting imports of GM crops. BASF’s stable of Clearfield crops — some of which were developed using RTDS — has been exported freely for years for that reason.

RTDS-bred oilseed flax is expected to come to market in 2015 and “allow North American growers to utilize a more effective and efficient weed control system.”

“The Flax Council of Canada is the flax industry’s preeminent trade group, and they are setting a responsible, strategic precedent by opting for a non-transgenic approach to trait enhancement,” Cibus Global president Keith Walker said in the company’s release Thursday.

“Endorsement”

“In that regard, we’re delighted to receive this endorsement of Cibus’ RTDS by a major trade organization, backed by a global agricultural superpower, and the recognition that RTDS is a viable alternative to transgenics.”

Canada’s flax sector “has set ambitious goals for acreage expansion and product improvement in the coming years while remaining fully committed to responding to European consumers’ concerns around transgenic crops and crop contamination,” Barry Hall, president of the Winnipeg-based flax council, said in the same release.

RTDS, Hall said, “will deliver us the high-value traits we need to make flax easier and more profitable to grow while maintaining the level of quality that our customers demand. We hope it is just the first of many traits we develop together, including oil quality and quantity improvements.”

Canadian flax is exported worldwide but 70 per cent of Canada’s flax has usually been exported to Europe, “underscoring the importance of 100 per cent non-transgenic flax crops,” Cibus said.

But Canadian flax exports came under scrutiny and were shut out of many countries’ ports starting last fall, when a number of samples tested positive with genetic markers for CDC Triffid.

The only GM flax ever approved in Canada, Triffid was bred for tolerance to sulfonylurea herbicide residues in soil. But the variety was deregistered in 2001 without ever being commercialized.

The flax sector had lobbied for Triffid’s deregistration, fearing for its markets in Europe and other GM-shy jurisdictions if a GM flax were to be introduced.

But Triffid’s genetic material has now been found to have contaminated breeder seed of two non-GM flax varieties, CDC Normandy and CDC Mons. Trace levels (below 0.01 per cent) have been detected in three other registered varieties.

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