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Goldfields of GMO-free Canola

Written by  Laurel Cadle Barber
| in Landbou
| February 19, 2014

Driving through the Overberg in spring, one cannot help but be entranced by the rolling golden hills covered in canola flowers.

But what is canola? Canola didn’t exist fifty years ago, and these plants have very little in common with their wild ancestors.
        Canola oil is produced from the seed of the rape plant. Rapeseed gets its name from the Latin word “rapum”, which means turnip. And indeed, Brassica napus and Brassica rapa, the ancestors of the two natural canola varieties commonly grown, are also those of  the turnip, rutabaga, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, mustard and many other of our common vegetables. Brassicas are some of the oldest cultivated plants, and derived seed oils were used as fuels and lubricants as long as  4000 years ago in India, and 2000 years in China and Japan.
        During World War Two rapeseed oil was widely used as a lubricant in the steam engines of naval and merchant ships. After the war, demand dropped considerably, and farmers had to investigate new uses. They tried to market it to the food industry,  with little success. The problem with rapeseed is that it contains two highly undesirable compounds: erucic acid, which is a known toxin that has been shown to cause fibrotic heart lesions in laboratory animals, and glucosinolate, a bitter compound which causes the oil to taste extremely bad.
Untitled-31        So it was back to the drawing board, and in the early 1970s a new plant (canola) was bred from rapeseed at the University of Manitoba in Canada. Using a combination of natural plant breeding techniques - which involved planting male and female plants in separate rows which were then pollinated by bees – and genetic manipulation called seed splitting, a new crop was born. Through this manipulation, they managed to significantly reduce the levels of erucic acid and glucosinolates found in the original rapeseed plant. This new oil was then known as LEAR – Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed. So, whilst the canola plant may derive from the rapeseed plant, they are definitely not the same thing, and their nutritional profiles differ considerably.
        Being much cheaper to produce than olive oil, this new oil was then carefully marketed as a healthier alternative to other vegetable oils. But this new oil needed a new name – both to distance itself from the word ‘rape’ and the industrial connotations of rapeseed. So the name "canola" was chosen by the board of the Rapeseed Association of Canada in the 1970s. The "Can" part stands for Canada, and "ola" refers to oil.
        Canola as a crop was introduced into South Africa in 1992, using only locally produced seed.  In the late 1980s the need for a new alternative crop was identified, due to low profit margins and shrinking cereal crop prices. Four crop seeds were evaluated, namely canola, safflower, linseed, and sunflower. Canola showed the most promise and the emphasis was placed on this crop. The first canola fields were planted in Swellendam in the Overberg district. A company called Southern Oil Limited (Soill) was established in 1996, and an oil refinery was built in Swellendam.
        Unlike the rest of the world, the South African canola crop is GMO (genetically modified materials) free. In the Western Cape, canola is grown particularly in the Overberg and Swartland regions, with Brassica napus-derived cultivars predominating. Canola is 70-80% self-pollinating, with the rest of the pollination done by wind or bees. The canola plant grows to approximately 1 meter tall, and is well-known for its stunning yellow flowers. As the plant matures, it produces pods that are similar to pea pods, but much smaller. Each pod contains about twenty tiny round brown seeds.
Untitled-24In the Swartland and Overberg, canola is planted during the months of April, May and June, as this is the ideal time due to winter rains and cool temperatures. It is between the months of July and September when the canola blooms and these areas are transformed into a golden wonderland. During this flowering period the seed pods start to grow on the plant, which remain once the flowers fall off. Harvesting of these seed pods take place at the end of October. The harvest is then transported to regional silos to await processing at the refinery.
         At the refinery, seeds are crushed to extract the oil - about 45% of the seed.  After refining, the product is bottled as canola oil. Canola oil is characterised by its pale golden colour, light texture, neutral taste, and high heat tolerance. The health benefits of canola oil are widely advertised - its low levels of saturated fats, high levels of mono-unsaturated ones, and a good balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. The remainder of the seed is extremely high in protein, and pressed seedcake is used as an animal feed.
        Canola is also a good source of bio-diesel, with approximately 1 050kg canola needed to produce 1 000kg bio-diesel. Whilst used on a commercial scale in Europe, the feasibility of producing it in South Africa is yet to be investigated.
Untitled-25        In the South African context, canola is used with great success as a rotation crop. Crop rotation is the growing of different crops on the same soil over the years. Including canola into the crop rotation order seems to increase grain yield in grain crops planted subsequently. Brassicas are known to release chemical compounds which are toxic to soil fungal diseases upon decay, and this biofumigation process leads to a healthier root system by using the natural chemicals released during decay to suppress fungal pathogens, weeds and insects. It also leads to greater nitrogen use efficiency.
        In a study done on Langgewens Experimental Farm (near Moorreesburg), it was shown that the wheat yield increased by 20% in the first year after canola had been planted. When Lupins were introduced into the four year rotation cycle (i.e. Lupins, Wheat, Canola, Wheat), the wheat yield increased by 29 to 32 percent. Other benefits of using canola as a rotation crop are a reduction in diseases, more effective weed control, and an improved crop root system.

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What about GMOs?

        Whilst to date South African canola is GM free, it is not the case in the rest of the world.       More than 80% of the world’s canola crop is genetically modified. In 1995 canola was genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup (Glyphosate), a broad-spectrum herbicide. This engineering was done by the chemical company Monsanto, who also produces Roundup, and was patented as Roundup Ready Canola Seed. Basically, this means that Roundup can be sprayed on the canola plants with impunity, killing weeds with no damage to the canola. This is extremely worrying, as Roundup is known to be highly toxic (both to people and the environment).
        There have been  other negative effects on farmers – unavoidable pollen drift has seen their organic fields contaminated by this  seed – and to add insult to injury, farmers can (and have been) sued by Monsanto in the United States for patent infringement in instances where ‘unauthorised’ plants were found in their fields.  
        So, if you are at all concerned about the effects of genetically modified canola – both on your health, and the environment, it is best to buy locally produced canola oil and products – at least for now, that is.