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Canola - Versatile and controversial

Written by  Leoni Kok
| in Landbou
| September 7, 2015

Canola is a relatively new crop for South Africa. In the early nineties less than 500 tons of canola was produced annually.

From the turn of the millennium onwards though, this figure has increased in leaps and bounds and continues to do so.  Crop data indicates an increase to 41 000 tons in 2003/2004, to  more than 57 000 tons in 2011/12 and 121 000 tons in 2014.

Canola has been earmarked as a development crop for South Africa, as the country remains a net importer of plant oils and oilcake, to the tune of some 70% per annum. According to the Oil & Protein Seed Development Trust, by 2013, less than 75 000ha was under canola crops, the bulk of it in the Western Cape where it is grown as a winter crop. Currently all commercial canola is still grown in the Western Cape, although some commercial viability studies are being conducted in the central irrigation area, most noticeably around Brits in the North West province. 

A 2013 study by Dr. M.B. Hardy and M.G. Wallace for the Department of Agriculture in the Western Cape indicated that more than 700 000 hectares were suitable for growing canola in the province. Judging by the uptake of canola growing in the province since then, farmers are taking heed. Crop estimates for the 2015 winter season show 87 000ha to be under canola production in the Western Cape.  

“Crop estimates for the 2015 winter season show 87 000ha as being under canola production in the Western Cape.”  

Canola is a versatile crop and can be grown anywhere in South Africa where conditions are suitable for wheat. Not only is canola increasingly popular as a source of vegetable oil for human consumption, canola oilseed has also seen an increased uptake in the animal feed and pet food market. 

Despite its versatility canola continues to be dogged by stubborn controversy. No matter how many official papers have been written and studies have been conducted to refute these claims, one only has to Google ‘canola’ along with ‘health’ to find a mass of links to articles and websites that warn of the ‘health risks’ associated with canola oil.

sep 2015 canola

The most compelling arguments for the naysayers seem to hark back to the origins of the plant and the process used to obtain the oil from the seeds.  Canola is a hybrid of the rape plant (Brassica rapa or Brassica napus). The rape plant is a close relative to cabbage, broccoli, mustard greens and kale. Indeed, if you should pick young canola leaves from the field and eat them, they taste surprisingly similar to Brussels sprouts.

The rape plant produces high quantities of erucic acid, a monounsaturated fat shown to cause heart lesions and myocardial lipidosis (a collection of fat droplets in the muscle tissue of the heart) in  laboratory rats. But before you run to toss out all your canola oil keep in mind that rats’ ability to digest erucic acid is about 20% lower than that of humans’. Aside from that, in the 1970’s Canadian breeders developed a rape plant that produced only 2% erudic acid instead of the average 20-50% of its forebears.

Canola varieties that are being developed today typically have even less than 2% of erudic acid as its total fatty acids, so you would just about have to take your canola oil and drink it, to reach the intake levels given to the rats in the 1970’s studies.  As an added precaution governments around the globe have passed legislation that restricts erucic acid in food-grade oils (including canola) to a maximum of 2% erucic acid by weight in the USA and 5% in the EU. This should be enough of an incentive to make most food oil produ-cers toe the line, as the USA and Europe are two of the most important markets for imported oils.

sep 2015 canola2The second major argument against canola oil for human consumption, is the process involved in obtaining the oil. First on the chopping block is the chemical extraction (typically with hexane). Then there are many references to the bleaching process; and because oils high in omega 3 and 6 fatty acids tend to become rancid quickly there is also a process of deodorisation. Let’s start with the ‘bleaching process’.  This involves moving the oil through natural clays, or activated carbon, to remove unwanted colour compounds, a rather far cry from the harsh chemical process the term would suggest. The hexane is completely removed at the end of the extraction process and the deodorisation involves steam being passed over the oil, while the oil is under total vacuum. 

Ironically, sunflower oil is obtained through the same process, so it begs the question why canola oil specifically became targeted by food alarmists. Methinks perhaps the food industry conspiracy theorists would have some thoughts on the matter.

I am not saying you should ignore food safety information, and I am most certainly not saying that the food industry and governments always get it right. But consumers today are too likely to jump on the myriad of dietary bandwagons mushrooming on the internet and social media, instead of using those same resources to do some broader research.

“Consumers are way too likely to jump on the myriad of dietary bandwagons mushrooming on the internet.”

In an independent study Dr. Carl Albrecht, Head of Research at the Cancer Association of South Africa, pretty much gives ‘the canola is poison’ proponents the boot. You can read his article on “debunking canola myths” on the CANSA website (www.cansa.org.za/debunking-canola-myths/).

While it is near impossible to determine the origin and extraction process of all the imported canola oil products in South Africa, what is locally produced for human consumption is usually of a high standard. Currently there is only one canola oil press in South Africa, and it is owned by Southern Oil (Pty) Ltd.  (SOILL). 

At the time of writing, SOILL still procures 100% of South Africa’s commercial canola crop, and for the time being we only use non-GMO seed for planting in South Africa. This is unusual considering that the majority of canola crops today are planted using herbicide-resistant GMO seed.

This bodes well for South African consumers, but not so much for canola farmers.  Some canola producers believe the presence of only one canola oil press in the country, makes for a monopoly that is not good for competitive producer prices.  The farmers I spoke with didn’t want to officially wade into the debate, but the general consensus was that South Africa needs a second canola press to stimulate competition. 

In worldwide canola trade the main price discovery mechanism is the canola futures contract on the ICE Futures Canada (formerly Winnipeg Commodity Exchange). In South Africa canola production is too small and isn’t traded on SAFEX (South African Futures Exchange).  The price to producers (farmgate price) is therefore determined by a complex consideration of a number of variables, including the import prices of substitute- as well as canola oil from around the world, the local protein market, and international protein prices.

sep 2015 canola3

Farmers’ wish for serious competition in the local production market may soon be granted, because one of the lucrative future applications for canola will be biofuel. Legislation mandating the blending of biofuels into motor fuel is supposed to kick in on 1 October 2015, but by mid-August government was yet to finalise its draft position paper on the South African Biofuels Regulatory Framework. 

In an interview with international business news network Bloomberg in April, PhytoEnergy International Holding AG said that it is poised to build a R5 billion plant to convert canola oil into diesel, as soon as government passes legislation. If things go as planned PhytoEnergy will build the plant at the Coega Industrial Development Zone in the Eastern Cape and produce 400 000 metric tons of biodiesel per year, of which the first output could start by the third quarter of 2017.

Estimates by Grain SA propose that the plant would need 1.1 million tons of canola per year, bumping required local canola production up by some 500 000 hectares. That’s a whole lot of canola.

Protein Research Foundation Chairman Gerhard Scholtemeijer is however puzzled by government’s push for the production of biofuel, when South Africa remains a net importer of the same crops - needed to produce the biofuel - for food purposes. In his opinion it would make more sense for government to encourage food-based production and subsidise that, rather than biofuel production.

Be that as it may, with biofuel development still in it’s infancy in South Africa, the future certainly looks bright for South Africa’s canola growers.  And for those who are still sceptical about canola as a healthy cooking oil here are some other stats from the Canola Council of Canada: canola oil contains about 7% saturated fat (that’s the stuff that’s supposed to clog your arteries). Sunflower oil contains about 12% saturated fat, peanut oil about 19% and olive oil (the much touted favourite of the health conscious) about 15%.