O CANOLA WE STAND ON GUARD
To understand the degree to which plant breeding has changed in the past half century, here’s one tiny example in the extraordinary story of canola.
Plant breeders Baldur Stefansson, of the University of Manitoba, and Keith Downey, of the Agriculture and Agri-food Canada research station in Saskatoon, were racing neck and neck to turn industrial rapeseed into a food oil.
But it was more like the race between the hare and the tortoise due to the time it took to measure the fatty acid content in the plant’s seed. Fatty acids determine the oil’s nutritional value. One of them found in rapeseed, erucic acid, can be harmful to some people and the scientists were trying to breed it out. In plant breeding, this means searching for those plants that produce the lowest erucic acid, growing them to maturity, selecting the plants with the lowest erucic content again and repeating this routine over and over for multiple generations until the trait is bred out.
The problem was it took a week just to test the erucic for a single plant, and Downey and Stefansson were working with hundreds of plants each. Testing for erucic was the bottleneck in the system. It was like a turnstile that lets in only one customer per week. At that pace, who knows when or even if they would ever develop the plant variety they wanted.
Downey likes to say there are many heroes in canola’s story and one of them was Burt Craig, a scientist at the National Research Council’s Prairie Regional Laboratory in Saskatoon. In the late 1950s, Craig came to the rescue by developing an instrument called a gas chromatograph that measured fatty acid composition not in weeks but minutes. His instrument reduced testing down to 15 – 20 minutes using the oil from a single seed.
It was game on. “That started the whole project of looking for low levels of the long chain fatty acids, eicosenoic and erucic,” said Downey.
And how long would it take today to measure not just erucic acid but oil content and glucosinolates in a seed? Infrared is now used and all three components can be analyzed in a single pass. It takes five seconds.
Stefansson and Downey would go on to invent a new oilseed called canola that would revolutionize agriculture. They turned rapeseed, an industrial oil, into canola, a food oil, and created Western Canada’s most lucrative cash crop. They did what no one dreamed possible: create a crop that would one day replace wheat as the Prairies’ most valuable crop.
In plant science, it doesn’t get any better than that. Canola is estimated to be worth at least $30 billion each year to the Canadian economy, and supports a new industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people, including workers at 14 oilseed crushing plants across Canada. About 10,000 jobs alone are attributed to the crushing industry. The Richardson expansion of the Yorkton facility and Cargill’s new facility near Regina will add to that economic contribution in a big way.
Meanwhile, Stefansson and Downey became like rock stars of the international plant breeding world. Downey has toured the world several times, including visits to China six times, and to India 10 times, for two to three weeks per visit to help plant scientists there convert rapeseed to canola.
It’s a very Canadian story and, like too many Canadian stories, Canada barely knows it. You drive past field after field of cheery yellow flowers and think, oh, it’s just another crop. It’s not. It’s Canada’s crop. Canada exports more canola than any other country in the world, by far. Canola is our hockey. No one plays it better. Some canola is grown in North Dakota and Montana; Europe grows it for domestic consumption but still calls it rapeseed; China grows a rapeseed that it uses as an inferior food oil; Australia grows up to 2.5 million acres. Manitoba beats Australia by itself with about three million acres annually. Western Canada farmers seed about 22 million acres annually.
We made it, we developed it, we turned it into a powerhouse in the global food market. You can almost hear the national anthem playing in the background when you pass by a canola field in bloom. They could make a movie about it but perhaps it’s just as well they don’t. They’d probably screw it up. The temptation would be too great to portray Downey and Stefansson as bitter rivals in a race to be the first to develop canola. Instead, it was and continues to be a story about collaboration, not competition, to reach a goal that was greater than any personal glory.
At one point, Stefansson sent Downey key genetic material for Brassica napus, the Latin name for a type of rapeseed found in Argentina. Out of hundreds of varieties he tested, Stefansson found it had the lowest amount of erucic fatty acid. Downey, in turn, sent Stefansson key genetic material that was low in glucosinolates, from rapeseed Brassica rapa of Poland. If they were bitter rivals, they had a strange way of showing it.
The game plan for both was to breed erucic acid and glucosinolates to negligible levels in rapeseed. In so doing, Canada could grow its own food oil. At the time, about 90 per cent of Canada’s cooking oil had to be imported.
Stefansson, who died in 2002 at age 84, was as unprepossessing a man as you could ever meet. Downey, who is 94 and was interviewed for this story, is still as sharp as a swather blade and congenial as an encyclopedia salesman. He continues to be Canada’s ambassador for canola. He still serves as an advisor to the research committee of the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission, and is on the organizing committee of the Canola Industry Meeting every December in Saskatoon, which he started half a century ago.
BALDUR ROSMUND STEFANSSON, or Stef as everyone called him, and as this story will call him from this point on, grew up on a farm at Vestfold, near Lundar, one of 10 children born to immigrant parents from Iceland. For someone so accomplished and regarded as a deep thinker, it’s interesting that he didn’t finish high school until he was 28 years of age.
It wasn’t because he couldn’t keep up. His parents were cattle farmers on hard-scrabble Interlake land. It was barely suitable for cows. Local historian George Siamandas, on his website, said the land was so poor the cattle would chew on lumber. Three of Stef’s siblings died in childhood. It was the hard times that forced Stef to discontinue his studies after Grade 9, not his marks. He stayed on the farm and then left to serve in the Second World War. He took up his schooling again when he returned. That’s how he completed high school at age 28.
Siamandas said one of the reasons Stef didn’t take up farming was because “every one of your neighbours is a competitor.” Stef’s children don’t recall ever hearing him say that. It was just a very poor farming area. “What you grew there was rock,” said one family member. But their father certainly was all about teamwork, and that was a big reason why canola rocketed to success. After completing Grade 12, Stef went on to the University of Manitoba where he studied agriculture and plant science, earning a Masters and later his PhD.
While Stef was serving in the Second World War, Keith Downey was hoeing fields at the Dominion Forage Crops Laboratory in Saskatoon. Downey, nine years younger than his Manitoba counterpart, was still in public school. He didn’t grow up on a farm but rather lived in Saskatoon where his father was a public school principal.
His parents were friends with Dr. Bill White, head of forage crop breeding at the Dominion Forage Crops Laboratory, the name of the federal agriculture research station in Saskatoon at the time. White recruited Downey when he was in Grade 7 to hoe crops and gather field samples, and that’s what Downey did every summer to earn a little spending money. He worked 10-hour days at 25 cents an hour. “I thought it was pretty good, actually. I got enough money to buy a bike,” he said.
“I went back every summer and when it came to university, I didn’t know what to do,” he said. He started in the arts program but eventually switched to agriculture. He obtained his Masters in plant breeding and was put in charge of the rapeseed program at White’s request. That was his first training with the crop that he would make into canola.
Thanks to about a 10-year delay in schooling, Stef obtained his Masters at the same time as Downing in 1952. (Both obtained their PhDs later, Downey in 1961 and Stef in 1966.) Stef went to work right away at University of Manitoba, originally hired to breed soybeans, and stayed his entire career. Downey went to work at the federal research station in Lethbridge where he helped develop the first wilt-resistant winter alfalfa named Beaver, which came out in 1961 and is still grown today.
White summoned Downey back to Saskatoon to take over the alfalfa breeding program. “As soon as I walked in, they said, ‘Here. You better take over the rapeseed breeding program because you know more about it than any of the other scientists.’ That’s how I got into canola breeding,” he said.
“It was a very small program. In 1950, we just about lost the crop. It was down to something like 400 acres. So, it was a pretty small thing.”
Rapeseed was an industrial oil. The plant is closely related to turnip, mustard and cabbage families, and originated 2,000 years ago in Europe. It grew in popularity in the 1940s to help support the war effort. All trains and ships during the Second World War were powered by steam, and rapeseed oil made the best lubricant because it didn’t wash off when wet. Oil supplies to the war effort were cut off from Europe and Asia, and western Canadian farmers were called to fill the breach. They discovered rapeseed grew well in Western Canada’s cooler, moister regions.
Commercial production started in 1943, helped by a guaranteed price set by the federal government, and acreage grew to 79,000 by 1948. But steam power was being replaced by diesel, so government ended its price support that year. Rapeseed production in Western Canada virtually disappeared in the 1950s.
Both Downey and Stef were intrigued about working with hemp at one point but there was little prospect of government funding for its research, so they wisely looked at rapeseed instead. Its prospects were quite good as Ottawa viewed it as a possible game-changer if Canada could grow it as a cooking oil.
Rapeseed soon became Downey’s only focus. White and Hank Sallans at the National Research Council concluded rapeseed had great potential, and a committee was struck to direct the research. But bad news came out of Western University in London, Ontario, when a study on nutrition found rats didn’t do well when fed rapeseed oil. Their adrenal glands swelled and they shed their skins. Nutritionists believed the long chain fatty acids in rapeseed were responsible. No other food oils had fatty acids longer than 18 carbon atoms. Rapeseed had 20 and 22 carbon atoms (eicosenoic and erucic, respectively). It was that high content of erucic fatty acid (20 – 40 per cent) that kept rapeseed out of grocery aisles.
Stef and Downey worked with the two main species of rapeseed, Brassica rapa, brought to the Prairies by an immigrant from Poland, where it was grown as a forage crop to feed hogs, and Brassica napus, which originated in Argentina. Napus wasn’t grown in Argentina and isn’t to this day. During the Second World War, shipments from Europe were being interrupted. The napus species that Canadian plant breeders used to make canola came from bags of seed that somehow wound up on docks in Argentina.
“We both started to see if we could breed for even lower levels, and we were both successful with napus, and developed material that had essentially no erucic, and we jointly published that around 1961,” said Downey.
They could have just kept their research to themselves but instead they exchanged material with each other “without any strings attached whatsoever. It was more a co-operative effort to achieve the goal of a low erucic oil,” Downey said.
Downey developed the first low erucic napus variety called Oro (Spanish for “gold”) in 1968, and the first rapa variety, Span, in 1971. His work showed erucic acid was controlled by two genes that, if manipulated correctly, could change the erucic content. “Stef was doing the same thing,” Downey said.
A problem popped up, however. Saskatchewan Wheat Pool wanted to crush the new low erucic acid seed at its plant in Saskatoon and Canada Packers wanted to buy and market it as a cooking oil. They got acreage planted but then Russia, then known as the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR), dumped shiploads of sunflower oil on the world market. It killed the market for cooking oil and Canada Packers backed out.
But that was just half the equation. Just making the food oil wasn’t enough. For it to be a viable crop, something had to be done with the leftover meal so it could be sold as animal feed. The problem with the meal was it contained glucosinolate, a sulfur compound that gave related crops like mustard and turnips their taste. However, the meal didn’t make a good feedstock because of glucosinolates. These sulfur compounds caused goiter (swollen thyroid glands), resulting in reduced weight gain in nonruminants swine and poultry. So the second objective, after achieving low erucic acid, was to breed varieties low in both erucic acid and glucosinolate, called “double o” varieties.
Again, measuring glucosinolate levels was a barrier. And again, the National Research Council lab in Saskatoon had the answer when Drs. Les Wetter and Clare Youngs put their heads together and developed a rapid test.
BY 1974, BOTH Downey and Stef had each bred a napus strain of low erucic, low glucosinolate rapeseed and each applied to have them registered as varieties. The federal approval committee would only choose one for licensing because it didn’t want to put out two similar varieties. It chose Tower, the variety developed by Stef, because it was slightly better yielding. And that became the first “double o” registered in the world.
“We were both breeding ‘double o’, and had candidates ready and tested, and, unfortunately for me, his was just slightly higher yielding,” recalled Downey.
The problem with Tower, however, was it only grew in southern Manitoba and southeastern Saskatchewan. That problem was overcome when Downey developed the first “double o” rapa variety to be registered, called Candle, in 1977.
Candle became the dominant Prairie canola. While Tower yielded more, it matured two weeks later than the rapa strain. So, through the 1970s, most farmers grew rapa species. They would delay seeding, kill the first flush of weeds with cultivation (the worst being wild oats), plant their crop and still harvest before the fall frost. About 75 per cent of the rapeseed crop was rapa.
The napus species took back the lead in 1982 with the introduction of an earlier maturing variety named Westar, developed by Saskatoon researchers. Blackleg broke out in the 1990s, to which Westar had no resistance, which swung the pendulum back to rapa. However, with the development of herbicide tolerant, blackleg resistant varieties and the 1995-96 introduction of herbicide tolerant hybrid napus varieties, the growing of rapa has almost disappeared.
In 1978, the name canola was trademarked, an abbreviation of “Canadian Oil.” The “can” stands for Canadian, and the “ola” is for oil. It was defined as seed, oil or meal having less than two per cent erucic acid and low glucosinolates.
Canola took another giant leap forward when Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada undertook a large body of nutritional research to obtain canola GRAS status (Generally Regarded as Safe) in 1985, opening up the U.S. market.
What wasn’t known when Downey and Stef were breeding their canola plants is that its oil was the healthiest on the market. It contains the lowest level of unhealthy saturated fatty acids of all food oils, and is high in unsaturated fat that reduces the risk of heart disease and lowers cholesterol. It also features a nice balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
It has shown to be a superior feed, as well. Research shows dairy cows on a canola meal diet produce over one litre of milk more per day versus livestock fed regular protein supplements.
By comparison, only 20 per cent of the crushed soybean is oil, versus 42 per cent for canola. Soybeans are crushed more for the protein meal, and canola more for its food oil.
“HE WAS A very good bridge player. He loved to play bridge,” said Downey, with a chuckle, recalling his association with Stef.
Curtis Rempel of the Canola Council of Canada did his undergraduate and graduate work under Stef and described him as “really approachable” and an influential mentor to many plant breeders. The three plant breeders who started canola hybrid seed were all Stef’s former students, said Rempel. Neither did Stef’s work end with plant breeding. He recruited people to do key research in related disciplines and perform nutrition studies, oil stability studies and chemistry tests. For example, he needed to find a way to isolate the fatty acids in the blood to perform cholesterol tests to demonstrate its cholesterol-reducing ability.
It was very similar to what Downey was doing. When I asked how he would describe himself, Downey replied as “a lucky individual” first and foremost. He is happy for his large family of children and grandchildren. He was living with a daughter at the time of the interview.
But Downey also said he is “a very co-operative guy because you don’t accomplish much on your own. You need the co-operation with others.” When it was said to him that plant breeding, to an outside observer, seems like it would be the most solitary of pursuits, Downey said the opposite was the case.
“That really is one of the keys to the whole canola story is that everybody co-operates,” he said. Like Stef, he called on a range of specialists in countless other disciplines, from plant pathologists, to entomologists, to chemists and agronomists.
That co-operative spirit permeates the canola sector to this day, according to Rempel at the Canola Council of Canada. The council itself is proof.
The council is an “entire value chain commodity organization,” said Rempel, vice-president of crop production and innovation, and that is unheard of. Every other group is either a farmer organization, like the American Soybean Association, or an industry association that represents processors. The canola council represents everyone from the growers, to the crushers, to the exporters, everyone excepting the food companies, said Rempel.
BJORGVIN STEFANSSON REMEMBERS when Tower was approved. His father Baldur, who was not one to display excess emotion, was visibly excited.
“I do remember when the first ‘double o’ (Tower) was produced. I was at the university with him. He was talking to the lab technician there. You could just see he was head over heels. He was so happy.” It was the culmination of two decades of work.
If you waited for Stef to start a conversation, you could be waiting a long time. His father was often very absorbed in his work and lengthy silences were common in his father’s presence, Bjorgvin said. At night, Baldur would sit in the living room in his chair either reading or deep in thought. “He was highly intellectual, highly focused. He worked on (plant breeding) forever. It was his sole focus,” said Bjorgvin.
He recalled one time, while enrolled at University of Manitoba, running into his father as both were preparing to leave the university for home.
“When you ran into him, he was almost in a trance,” Bjorgvin said. “We quite literally walked to the bus stop, sat on the bus side by side all the way home, got off, and walked halfway down the block to our house when he looked up and said, ‘Hi, B.'” That was the first exchange between them. His father addressed Bjorgvin by his first initial.
Bjorgvin said the joke between him and his two siblings was they had another brother named Canola. “It wasn’t that he didn’t care any less for us, there was just this other thing in his life, in a good way,” Bjorgvin said.
His father was dedicated to his craft. Following the famous blizzard of March 1966, Baldur didn’t wait for the streets to be plowed. He strapped on a pair of old cross-country skis he hadn’t used since he was a kid in the Interlake—they had just a single leather strap to pull over your boot—and skied to the university laboratory from their Fort Garry home.
After he retired at age 68, Baldur took up slow-pitch baseball and golf at the Par 3 Crescent Drive Golf Course. Both were new activities for him. He was a smoker until the end. “I’m sure it impacted his health but he didn’t die from it,” Bjorgvin said.
His dad always said his work was “getting Manitoba farmers a reasonable cash crop.” That’s what it has become, another crop Prairie farmers can put in their rotation. He never envisioned it would be the huge success it became, however.
Downey has similar views. As the unofficial ambassador for canola, he last spoke at a major oilseeds conference at the age of 88, and was 90 when he ventured to Winnipeg to help promote a travelling exhibit on the history of Canada’s canola industry. When I contacted him, he said he never turns down an opportunity to talk about canola. Our first telephone interview lasted over an hour and the interviewer tired before he did. The second interview lasted another hour.
Canola diversified Canada’s agriculture, eliminated Canada’s dependence on food oil imports, padded the pocketbooks of farmers, and expanded markets at home and abroad, he said. It established a new and very large, rural-based industry: the value-added crushing and refining industry.
At home, canola has surpassed wheat in dollar value. Western Canadian farmers seed about 22 million acres each of wheat and canola annually now but canola pays better. Canola has outpaced wheat in dollar returns for the past 15 years at least. It now accounts for about one quarter of all crop receipts.
THE REASON FOR Canada’s dominance with canola is Downey and Stef invented the crop. It gave Western Canada “first-mover advantage.” That enables a country to establish strong brand recognition, which Canada has done sensationally, along with customer trust and confidence before competitors can get involved.
As well, other countries couldn’t just nab some seeds and start. That’s because the canola varieties were developed by plant breeders for the Prairie climate. That has slowed its spread into other countries.
“When you make up the overwhelming majority of the production, all the plant breeding is going to be focused on you,” explained Dave Simonot, Manitoba Agriculture crops market intelligence expert. “The focus and heart of the research centres is on Western Canada, since that is where the big payoff is.”
Western Canada’s domestic crushing industry buys and processes about half of its raw seed. Then, about 90 per cent of that canola and its oil and meal is consumed in export markets. More than 50 different nations import canola seed, oil and meal from Canada. The biggest buyer of canola oil and meal is the United States. For exports of raw seed, the most important destinations are China, Japan and Mexico.
And the world’s appetite for canola may just be getting started. Global analysts project the health oil market will improve to 26 – 46 million tonnes by 2025. However, with crop rotations necessary for disease control, it isn’t likely Western Canada can plant more acres. So, the Canola Council of Canada is setting production targets, instead of acreage targets like it set in the past. Previous targets were to plant seven million acres by 2007, and 15 million acres by 2015, both of which growers achieved with flying colours. Now the target is to reach average yields of 52 bushels an acre. It’s a demand-driven strategy. At 52 bushels an acre, producers can produce 26 million tonnes at current acreages. That seems within reach.
Taking Manitoba as an example, canola yields have more than doubled from 20 bushels for 1978 to 82, to 42 bushels an acre in the last three years.
Again, that will largely be up to plant breeders. Some ongoing research is looking to change the seed coat from black to yellow, because the yellow seed coat is thinner and less energy is spent to produce it. That would allow the plant to increase its oil and protein.
A factor for yield loss is pod shattering and the seed spilling on the ground, either from high winds or during the combining process. It can amount to a loss of a couple bushels per acre, so there is also ongoing research focused on improving shatter-resistant varieties. Producers have also refined harvesting processes to minimize shattering by harvesting at optimum moisture content and achieving uniform maturity—harvesting in the best window will minimize shattering losses.
There are also plant breeders breeding hairs on canola plants to protect them from flea beetles, the scourge on canola from the insect world. Hairs on the leaves and stems would discourage flea beetles from feeding off the plants and laying their eggs.
And, as this was being written, there was excitement over claims that a new sclerotinia-resistant canola strain had been developed. Sclerotinia is one of the worst diseases for canola, resulting in severe yield losses.
Downey is confident more plant breeding successes for canola are in the pipeline.