Oh Can-ola!

Flowering Barbarea vulgaris or Yellow Rocket plant (Cruciferae, Brassicaceae) close up isolated on white

Since first appearing on the Canadian agricultural stage 60 years ago, a tiny, bright yellow flower achieved star status as a new cooking oil and biodiesel source that’s both good for humans and for the planet. 

Canola, a name which combines “Canada” and “oil,” was developed by researchers and oilseed breeders at the University of Manitoba in the 1960s and ’70s, partially in response to a decline in the rapeseed market. Unlike rapeseed, which had its heyday as a lubricant in steam-powered engines, canola was bred for human consumption and for animal feed. 

As a plant that easily adjusts to cool night temperatures and hot, dry days, the crop grows well on the Prairies, which produce 99 percent of Canada’s canola. More than 20 million metric tonnes of the stuff were produced in 2018, with Saskatchewan fields accounting for over half. 

The seeds have almost twice the amount of heart-healthy oil found in soybeans. Canola oil is rich in Vitamin E, cholesterol free and contains the least saturated fat of any common cooking oil. Its low cost, high smoke point and nutritional benefits make canola oil a popular choice. 

According to Stats Canada, Canadians are the largest per capita consumers of canola oil foodstuffs in the world; it’s used in 80 percent of the salad oil market, 56 percent of the shortening market and 42 percent of the margarine market. It’s also found in cosmetics, printing inks, suntan oils, oiled fabrics, plasticizers, plastic wraps, pesticides and industrial lubricants. Consumer products containing canola carry the canola flower logo of the Canadian Canola Council.

While canola is obviously important for oil production, it is also the source of a number of other valuable products. Canola meal (what’s left of the canola seeds after the oil has been extracted) is a rich source of vitamins B and E and is a protein source for the aquaculture and animal feed industries.

Research to discover other uses has led to its development as a biodiesel for trucks and heavy machinery. It’s been shown to emit almost 90 percent less greenhouse gases than petroleum-based diesel. Work is also underway to develop canola varieties with greater resilience to herbicides, that are more resistant to disease and weeds, with improved crop yield, quality and shorter maturity time. Other research is looking to boost the average oil content in canola seed, as well as its caloric content in poultry and swine feed.  

And, it’s good for business. According to the Canola Council of Canada, Canadian-grown canola contributes billions to the economy annually, including more than 250,000 Canadian jobs and $11.2 billion in wages. Canada is the world’s largest exporter, with more than 90 percent of the country’s canola seed, oil and meal sold in the United States, Japan, Mexico and China.

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