San Diego’s Cibus Inks Deal with Flax Growers Eager to Avoid GMO Flak
San Diego’s Cibus Global is uniting with Canada’s flax growers to develop a crop strain resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in the widely used weed killer Roundup. Flax, also known as linseed, is a major crop grown for both its seeds and fibers, with various parts of the plant used to make linen and other fabrics, dyes and inks, medicines, and other products.
The Flax Council of Canada is investing about $5.5 million in the partnership, including the proceeds of a $4 million grant it received from the Canadian government. Revenues from the new strain of seed would be split between the Flax Council and Cibus, according to Barry Hall, president of the growers’ group.
The deal moves little Cibus closer to competition with Monsanto, the agri-industry giant which markets both Roundup and lines of crops that are genetically engineered to resist the herbicide. Weed killers containing glyphosate are available as generics.
Monsanto’s Roundup-resistant strains account for much of the corn, cotton, and soybeans grown in the U.S. But genetically modified crops have received only limited acceptance (and sometimes harsh criticism) in Europe, which imports 70 percent of Canada’s flax crop. Much of the flax is used to produce linseed oil, which is used in paints, linoleum flooring, and inks.
Cibus believes its technology for producing new crop strains is less likely to alarm activists who oppose genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, than the methods used by Monsanto. Cibus says its Rapid Trait Development System harnesses the natural DNA repair system in plant cells to change a single letter in the genetic code and trigger the desired trait. The process—a sort of controlled evolution—differs from Monsanto’s genetic engineering technique of inserting foreign DNA from bacteria into plants to produce its genetically modified strains of Roundup-resistant crops.
Hall says growers are eager for an herbicide-resistant strain acceptable to its European customers because many existing weed killers damage crops by delaying maturing and reducing yields. Foregoing herbicides isn’t an option because the weeds simply take over.
“We are very much in need of weed control that’s not branded as genetic modification,” Hall said at a press conference today in San Diego.
Cibus CEO Keith Walker said it would take his company three to five years to develop the new strain, and another two years to get the strain from the laboratory to farmers. “Our goal of course is to beat those numbers and get them to breeders as quickly as possible,” he said at the press conference.
The new strain would have to be registered with the Canadian government before it could be used, Hall said.
Besides this latest deal, Cibus has other projects in the works. Last September, the company formed a partnership with Israel-based chemical company Makhteshim-Agan to develop crops resistant to Makhteshim-Agan’s weed killers. Cibus and the National Grain Sorghum Producers Foundation are working with Sumitomo Chemical to develop sorghum strains resistant to Sumitomo’s herbicide SelectMax. And Cibus is developing stains of canola and oilseed rape that resist herbicides produced by another partner, chemical giant BASF.
Walker said today that herbicide-resistant strains of canola could become available in 2012.