My Canada, 107/150: The canola champion

One of the ways I helped pay for my university of education was by coating rapeseeds in lurid florescent-pink powders.

For three summers, I was one of a dozen students who worked at an agriculture research station — a test farm and laboratory — then operated by Uniroyal Chemical, which had a plant in my hometown. The pink powders were various formulations of fungicides we were testing in trial plantings of rape, a member of the mustard family.

It was still called rape but we were told the term “canola” was also starting to being used. I thought then that the name change was simply a matter of a needed re-branding: who wanted consume “rape oil”, even if, etymologically, the name evolved from the Latin “rapus” for turnip, another related vegetable.

I’ve since learned that canola is a Canadian agricultural invention, an improvement on the rape plant, which has a high level of erucic acid that can be toxic in large doses. After a cross-breeding program, Canadian producers created a plant that had much lower levels of this acid, as well lower levels of glucosinolate, the substance that gives plants such as mustard and horseradish their pungency. The newly developed milder and safer plant was christened “canola” – a combination of “Canadian” and “Oil” (or ola).

Canola oil is used as a vegetable cooking oil and both canola and rapeseed oils contribute to biofuels. Once the oil is extracted, there remains a seed meal used in animal feed.

Canada is the world’s top producer of canola: nearly one quarter of the world’s supply is grown here. It certainly creates the most dramatic and beautiful farm fields when the crop is in brilliant yellow lower-bloom before the seedpods form.

Canola growing is certainly a big business and it’s developed a unified approach through an over-arching Canola Council funded by grower associations, processors, exporters, and what they delicately term ” life science company contributions”: big chemical  companies such as Bayer, Monsanto, Dow, and DuPont.

Working at an agriculture research station exposed me to the arguments about why modern mass farming has benefited from chemicals. To this day, farmers are concerned about fungus’s effect on canola: in something called the Canola Encyclopedia maintained by the Canola Council, an entire chapter is devoted to “sclerotinia sclerotiorum,” which causes canola stem rot, or white mould as it’s sometimes called, and it’s one of the most destructive diseases of canola.

Still, I remember with some hang-dog shame that one of the other trials we ran was trying to find an additive to the herbicide Atrazine, which was used at that time to keep down weeds in corn fields. Corn wasn’t affected by Atrazine. But neither was milkweed. Uniroyal Chemical, and likely all the other agriculture chemical companies, were in a race to see if they could find something to kill the milkweed that also didn’t kill the corn. I don’t know if anyone was ever successful but I feel like I need to say “sorry” every time a Monarch butterfly, which needs milkweed to survive, flits by.

My research farm days happened before concerns about genetically modified crops were a subject of public discussion. I note, with some amusement, the answer the Canola Council provides to the question: “Was canola developed using genetic engineering?”

The reply: “Canola was developed using traditional plant breeding techniques, so it was not developed using biotechnology. However, about 80 per cent of the canola grown in Canada has now been modified using biotechnology to make it tolerant to some herbicides. Using these specific herbicides has reduced the amount of chemical needed for weed control in the fields.

“Remember — the canola plant has been modified, not the oil. So canola oil from the herbicide tolerant plant is exactly the same safe and healthy oil as canola oil from conventional plants. The modification has been made to only one canola gene and it is a protein. Processing removes all proteins from canola oil. That means canola oil made from GM seed is conventional canola oil.”

I’m betting the person who wrote that studied philosophy, or rhetoric, or both. It does point out the complexity of agriculture mass production: trading off a bit of genetic modification to reduce the amount of herbicide used in the field. Bad? Good? The Council also reports that canola, with its brilliant yellow long-lasting blooms, is wonderful for bees, and canola benefits from bee cross-pollination:  growers in Western Canada are working closely with the Canadian Honey Council for mutual benefit. That, at least, has to count on the ecologically positive side of the complex ledger all big agriculture enterprises must keep.

Main photo: John Lederman

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