Alan McHughen

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Alan McHughen is a molecular geneticist who spent twenty years at the University of Saskatchewan before joining the University of California, Riverside. He is said to have helped develop Canadian and US regulations governing GM plants.

McHughen developed and spread the GM flax called Triffid which in 2009 was revealed to have contaminated European flax supplies (see "GM-contaminated flax débacle", below).

He is the author of the book, Pandora's Picnic Basket; The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods, which claims to 'explode the myths and explore the genuine risks of genetic modification (GM) technology'. In the same year his booklet "Biotechnology and Food" was published by the American Council on Science and Health, which John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton described in their book, Toxic Sludge is Good for You, as an "industry front group that produces PR ammunition for the food processing and chemical industries".[1]

In Pandora's Picnic Basket McHughen argues that many of the concerns about genetic engineering are based in reality on "myths" and "misinformation". McHughen has even claimed, "Opponents to GM put forward untenable pseudo-scientific assertions, then run away, unwilling or unable to defend their positions."

Yet Pandora's Picnic Basket contains a number of "untenable pseudo-scientific assertions". For instance, on p. 233 we read:

According to Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute the highly respected US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta noted 2471 cases, including 250 deaths, of infection by the unpleasant E. coli strain O157:H7 in 1996 alone. These bacteria live in manure. Manure is used as a fertilizer in organic farming systems. Organic foods were implicated in about a third of the confirmed O157:H7 cases despite the fact that organic food constitutes only about 1% of food consumed in the US.

In fact, according to Robert Tauxe, M.D., chief of the food borne and diarrheal diseases branch of the CDC, there is no such data on organic food production in existence at their centers and he says Avery's claims are "absolutely not true". According to Tauxe, “The goal of the CDC is to ensure food is produced using safe and hygienic methods, and that consumers also practice safe and hygienic methods in food preparation, regardless of the source, be it organic, commercial, imported or otherwise.”[2]

Avery's claims have repeatedly been debunked, with even Gregory Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute commenting that, "looking at a few selectively reported cases from a single year doesn't seem to be convincing anybody who doesn't already have a predilection to believe you in the first place".

McHughen targets flax

That McHughen should have a predilection to believe Avery may not be surprising given that McHughen's own work has centered on seeking to genetically engineer flax in the face of strong opposition. The president of Flax Growers Western Canada, Chris Hale, accused McHughen of a 'clear misunderstanding' of flax markets when McHughen argued it was an ideal crop for engineering such industrial traits as the production of plastics or drugs as it wasn't part of the food chain.[3]

Hale pointed out that Europe, which was 'far and away' the biggest importer of Canadian flax, required an assurance from the Canadian Grain Commission that no GM flax was grown in Canada. Contrary to McHughen's claims, flax seed oil is an important health food product in Europe and is bought by health-conscious consumers as a good source of Omega 3 oils. Hale also pointed out that the residue of flax exported to Europe for industrial purposes is fed to livestock. The Canadian flax industry managed to get a chemical-resistant variety of flax, developed by McHughen, banned from commercial production.[4]

GM-contaminated flax débacle

Hale was proved correct – and McHughen was proved wrong – on September 10, 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 Canadian flax seed market promptly collapsed. The brand name of this GM flax was Triffid, and it was developed and registered for use in Canada by Alan McHughen.

McHughen's seed

Alan McHughen, over the strong and vigorous objections of the flax growers in Canada, insisted on bioengineering and then registering the GM Triffid flax with public funds through the University of Saskatchewan Crop Development Center.[5] Triffid was approved by Canadian regulators in 1998 but the Flax Council of Canada convinced the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to remove variety registration for the GM flax in 2001, making it illegal to grow. Flax growers took this action to protect their export markets from the threat of GM contamination.[6] The University of Saskatchewan lost a substantial sum of money from this episode.[7][8][9]

In September 2009 Resource News International reported:

Cash bids for flaxseed in Western Canada have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. with some of the decline being linked to European concerns the crop contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
There were reports that Viterra has lowered its bids in Manitoba to as low as $6.78 a bushel, which would be down significantly from bids in the province ranging from around the $10/bu. level just a few days ago.
A number of elevator companies across the Canadian Prairies are believed to have halted their flax buying program all together.[10]

GM flax FP967 (CDC Triffid) has tolerance to soil residues of sulfonylurea-based herbicides. Canada supplies approximately 70% of the total flax/linseed utilized in the EU annually.[11]

An article by Allan Dawson in the Manitoba Co-operator ("CDC Triffid Flax Scare Threatens Access To No. 1 EU Market", September 17 2009), states that McHughen deliberately spread his GM Triffid flax seed by giving away packets to farmers to plant, at a time when the flax industry was trying to eradicate the GM threat from its crop:

Alan McHughen, who developed CDC Triffid, gave away small packets of the seed early in the decade — a move criticized by the flax industry at the time.[12]

In the same article, the Canadian National Farmers Union vice president Terry Boehm is quoted as saying the best news would be that the flax was contaminated by GM canola:

If it is CDC Triffid, access to Canada’s biggest flax customer is in peril.
"This is an absolute nightmare for flax growers and why we worked so hard to have the GM flax removed," he said.[13]

Testing did confirm that the contaminant was Triffid. In January 2010, an article for CBC News reported:

Canadian flax seed has been shut out of its largest market after traces of Triffid — a genetically modified form of the crop ordered destroyed 10 years ago — was found in shipments. The European Union, which buys 70 per cent of Canada's flax, has a zero-tolerance policy regarding genetically modified organisms and has been turning away shipments.
Officials say Canada's entire $320-million industry is threatened.[14]

The article quoted Barry Hall, president of the Flax Council of Canada, as saying that the worst-case scenario for Canadian flax producers is that the industry will shut down for three to five years to purge whatever GM seed is already growing.[15]

Views on GM contamination of Mexican maize

Despite his cavalier attitude to genetically engineering flax, McHughen has recognised the problems associated with 'contamination' via pollen drift etc. Perhaps for that reason McHughen was one of the few genetic engineers ready to question the treatment of Dr Ignacio Chapela, the UC Berkeley scientist who published a paper on the contamination of native maize by GM varieties in Mexico. The journal Science and Policy Perspectives reported:

Another scientist who strongly sides with Chapela is Alan McHughen, a researcher at the Crop Development Center at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. McHughen is one of those who believe the outburst toward Chapela was far out of proportion to the alleged offense and senses that the attacks on Quist and Chapela were coordinated and conspiratorial. "I think there are a group of people who for whatever reason don't want to hear anything at all about reasons to question the technology," says McHughen. "I read Chapela's paper over and over again and I just couldn't find anything that was inflammatory about it."[16]

Attacks on scientists who find problems with GM crops

McHughen, the inventor or "engineer" of Triffid GM flax, was one of a group of scientists who have been accused of setting up Russian scientist Irina Ermakova for an aggressive attack in the pages of Nature Biotechnology in 2007.[17][18] Ermakova's multi-generational feeding studies on GM soya found that it created ill effects and high mortality in experimental rats.[19]

McHughen was also among the scientists identified in a 2009 article in the jornal Nature as having played a lead role in a campaign to denigrate the research of the scientist Emma Rosi-Marshall. An editor for the Entomological Society of America complained in the same article about those "who denigrate research by other legitimate scientists in a knee-jerk, partisan, emotional way that is not helpful in advancing knowledge and is outside the ideals of scientific inquiry." [20]


  1. John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, cited by Jane Akre and Steve Wilson in "Media serve genetically modified food industry", Media Alliance website, accessed 24 March 2009
  2. Dr Tauxe's comments have been cited widely, including in J. Robert Hatherill, Ph.D, and Jeff Nelson, "Organics: The Blurred Vision of ABC’s 20/20", Earthsave Newsletter, Spring 2000 Volume 11 Number 2
  3. Sean Pratt, Flax growers reject GM proposal, The Western Producer, November 1 2001, accessed 9 September 2009
  4. Sean Pratt, Flax growers reject GM proposal, The Western Producer, November 1 2001, accessed 9 September 2009
  5. Illegal GM Flax Contaminates Canadian Exports, press release, Greenpeace, 10 Sept 2009, accessed 14 Sept 2009
  6. Illegal GM Flax Contaminates Canadian Exports, press release, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, 10 Sept 2009, accessed 14 Sept 2009
  7. Genetic flax research cancelled, CBC News, 23 June 2001, accessed 14 Sept 2009
  8. Jason Warick, GM Flax Seed Yanked Off Canadian Market - Rounded Up, Crushed, The Star Phoenix, June 23, 2001, accessed 14 Sept 2009
  9. Posting by Ken Hanly to PEN-L listserv, 30 July 2000, accessed 14 Sept 2009
  10. Dwayne Klassen, Prairie flax bids fall over Europe's GMO concerns, Resource News International, 4 Sept 2009, accessed 9 Sept 2009
  11. Specific test now available for recently detected unauthorized GM flax/linseed variety FP967 (CDC Triffid), Genetic ID press release, Sept 10 2009, accessed Sept 14 2009
  12. Allan Dawson, CDC Triffid Flax Scare Threatens Access To No. 1 EU Market, Manitoba Co-operator, September 17 2009, accessed 1 October 2009
  13. Allan Dawson, CDC Triffid Flax Scare Threatens Access To No. 1 EU Market, Manitoba Co-operator, September 17 2009, accessed 1 October 2009
  14. Triffid seed threatens flax industry, CBC News, January 20, 2010, accessed 21 Jan 2010
  15. Triffid seed threatens flax industry, CBC News, January 20, 2010, accessed 21 Jan 2010
  16. Wil Lepkowski, "Biotech's OK Corral", Science and Policy Perspectives, No. 13, posted July 09, 2002, version archived in web archive 16 October 2002, accessed March 24 2009
  17. GM Free Cymru, Nature Biotechnology facilitates premeditated GM rottweiler attack, 17 Sept 2007, accessed 14 Sept 2009
  18. [GM Free Cymru, Supporting Information Requested by Alan McHughen, accessed 14 Sept 2009
  19. Genetically modified soya leads to the decrease of weight and high mortality rate of rat pups of the first generation. Ermakova I.V. EcosInform, 1: 4-9, 2006. Also see Genetically Modified (GM) Foods - Renewed Threat to Europe, reference no. 13.
  20. Emily Waltz, "GM crops: Battlefield", Nature 461, 27-32 (2009) doi:10.1038/461027a, 2 September 2009, accessed September 2009